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Free agency ain't dead, it's just boring

Ezra Shaw

I think I smell a delicious baseball meme!

Free agency is dead.

I don't know exactly where it started, but a couple of weeks ago Matthew Futterman's piece in The Wall Street Journal was headlined "Baseball Free Agency Dies of Neglect" (and tip of the cap to Jason Brannon for spotting it). One key passage:

Since the beginning of the 2011 season, 49 players have opted to sign extensions with their current teams that give the club control of their destiny even after they've qualified for free agency. Just three years ago, 32 players signed extensions during the same period. A decade ago it was less than 15.

In the last few months, Matt Cain of the San Francisco Giants, Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds, Ian Kinsler and Derek Holland of the Texas Rangers and Matt Kemp of the Los Angeles Dodgers have signed contract extensions with their current teams that will keep them off the open market during some of the most valuable seasons of their careers. In doing this, they've potentially left tens of millions of dollars on the table.

That was before Justin Verlander and Buster Posey signed massive contract extensions, in the wake of which Cliff Corcoran gave us a bigger list (via The Strike Zone):

In the last 12 months alone, the following players have signed contracts spanning five or more seasons, many of them effectively buying out the remaining peak seasons of that player’s career: Verlander, Posey, Adam Wainwright, Felix Hernandez, David Wright, Evan Longoria, Cole Hamels, Joey Votto, Matt Cain, Adam Jones, Ian Kinsler, Madison Bumgarner, Chris Sale, Matt Harrison, Jonathan Niese, Carlos Santana, Miguel Montero, Brandon Phillips, Starlin Castro, Adam Jones, Andre Ethier, Allen Craig, and Paul Goldschmidt (the last of which was also announced on Friday).

Corcoran didn't specifically reference The Death of Free Agency ... but Jonah Keri did -- in the wake of yet another big extension, this one for Elvis Andrus -- Monday afternoon in his Grantland column. And what does this mean for next winter's free-agent crop? Jonah:

That leaves us with a free-agent wasteland. Next winter, the list is slated to include Robinson Cano … and a whole lot of decent players past their prime, or never that good in the first place. The best pitcher on the list figures to be Josh Johnson, a fine arm when healthy but also one of the most injury-prone top starters in the game. As is, Cano may well not make it to free agency if the Yankees open the vault for him — and it'll very likely be a one-team bidding war if he does wait.

We can't know anything for sure in early April, but it seems highly unlikely that the Yankees will let Cano get away, and they figure to re-sign him to a backloaded contract running through the rest of his prime seasons. At least.

Now, Cano and (maybe) Josh Johnson won't be the only prospect free agents who sign large contracts between now and next March. You give me a group that includes Brian McCann, Ben Zobrist, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, Hunter Pence, Justin Morneau, and Kendrys Morales, and I can almost guarantee one of those guys will play well enough to this season to wind up getting a big deal. But all of those players come with big question marks at this moment, and most will still have big question marks next November.

Free agency is neither dead nor dying; rather, it's just become a lot less interesting. There will be dozens and dozens of free agents on the market next winter. But considering the distinct possibility that Canó won't really be available to anyone but the Yankees and Josh Johnson will once again come up lame, there might not be a single premier player available next winter to the highest bidder. Which would essentially be the first time that's happened in nearly 40 years.

What does all this mean? Well, let's not overstate things. We may assume that some teams still won't have the money to sign their young stars to long-term extensions; however, if the small-market Reds can lock up Joey Votto forever, not many clubs will have that excuse. Also, if the Rays can't afford to pay David Price what he wants, they might well trade him to someone who can. So there will still be opportunities for the haves to reap what the have-nots have sown.

Just not nearly as many, it seems. For now, anyway. If there's one thing we know, it's that baseball financial trends don't trend forever. My gut says that we're currently in a transition period, with an edge going to smart teams with some flexibility. My gut also says it's almost impossible to predict what things will look like five or 10 years from now. I mean, the Yankees and the Dodgers and the Red Sox have to spend their money somewhere, right? If they can't spend their money on free agents or amateurs, where will they spend it?

My guess is that salaries will almost necessarily have to rise dramatically, as the players tire of the owners keeping an ever-growing piece of the pie for themselves. Because you know ticket prices and cable-TV bills aren't going down.

This seems like a great thing for the game, though. While it's true that free agency probably spurred attendance in the 1980s, it's probably gotten out of hand in the years since. It's probably a good thing when most teams can figure a way to retain the young stars they've developed. It might make the off-seasons more interesting, too. It's always news when a free agent signs a big contract, but it's not really so interesting considering they usually just sign for whoever offers the most money.

Those deals are boring. If free agents aren't available when teams needs to fill a position, there should be more trades, and trades are inherently more interesting than free-agent signings because trades involve at least two teams rather than just one.