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The rise of cheap

MLB free agency isn’t the rockstar paycheck it once was. Now, owners are investing almost exclusively in young, inexpensive talent.

In the first inning of Game 7 of the 2017 World Series, the Houston Astros scored two runs and crept closer to their first-ever championship. Five players came up to the plate in that inning, and the worst of those hitters made the final out. That player was paid $5 million more for his work in 2017 than the other four players combined.

It was the baseballiest danged thing imaginable.

To be fair, Yulieski Gurriel, a 33-year-old first baseman who joined the team in 2016 after years in the Cuban league, is the worst hitter in this example, and he’s a talented player. It’s only through the prism of the formidable 2017 Astros that he can be made to look like a weak link. Yet he was unquestionably the least valuable of the five hitters who came up to the plate that inning (George Springer, Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve, and Alex Bregman were the others). If the Astros had to drop one of those five from a particular game, it would be Gurriel. If they had to drop one of them for the rest of the year, it would be Gurriel. If they had to get rid of one of them permanently, it would be Gurriel.

But it wasn’t just that Gurriel was providing the least amount of production for the most money. The other four players gave their team a championship core at rebuilding prices. They helped the team win more, and they helped the team spend less, which helped the team win more when they decided to spend more. Yes, it’s complicated. But a team full of Gurriels — free agents paid what the market dictates — wouldn’t have allowed the Astros to afford Justin Verlander; a team full of Gurriels wouldn’t have led to an Astros championship.

This dynamic isn’t just limited to the Astros. The Dodgers played in the same World Series because Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger making back-of-the-bullpen money allowed them to feel comfortable paying superstar money to Kenley Jansen and Justin Turner. The possibility of developing more rookies allowed them to pay super-duper-star money to Clayton Kershaw.

So why did Gurriel cost so much? Because he was a free agent. He got to sort through offers from 30 teams and pick the best one.

And why do the other four cost so little? Because they were betrothed to the Astros immediately after they were drafted, and they’ll remain so for several years.

It’s not that the players were thinking about this as they were playing in the World Series — not for one second. It’s just how things are. It’s just baseball, where players’ salaries are determined more by circumstance than talent. This is the secret of baseball, the only part of Moneyball that really matters.

In baseball, the best players are usually the cheapest players.

This is a truism, and that sentence probably didn’t blow the minds of anyone reading this. It’s something we’ve internalized and accepted long ago. To be a baseball fan is to know that the best players are usually the cheapest players. If you want something like a scientific proof for this point, it would go something like this:

  1. Players are usually in their prime between the ages of 24 to 29.
  2. Players from the ages of 24 to 29 usually haven’t had control over where they want to play.
  3. Players make more money when they have control over where they want to play.

This is how the most expensive player in the above example was Yulieski Gurriel. He had control over where he played. It’s also one of the reasons why he’s the least productive player of the five; he was 33 last year, and his prime was years ago in Cuba. But there’s nothing unusual about this format: The older players get paid and the younger players don’t. This is how it’s been since the advent of free agency. It’s why Madison Bumgarner makes less than Jeff Samardzija, why Noah Syndergaard makes less than Jason Vargas.

For years, the system worked. Well enough, at least. Young players would grind and grind for three years, then make a little bit more when they got to arbitration. Then they would grind and grind, and make a fair amount more when they got to their second year of arbitration. Then there was the healthy-but-still-underpaid third year of arbitration, and then, zoooom, into free agency, where the grapes are peeled and the infinity pools install themselves.

For several reasons, this isn’t happening anymore. The young players still aren’t getting paid, and now the pot of gold at the end of free agency is gone for the veterans. Only All-Stars and MVP candidates are making nearly as much as they used to, and there aren’t enough of those to go around.

Overall, fewer and fewer players are seeing benefits from baseball’s record-setting revenues, and that’s about to be a huge problem.

Consider Scott Feldman, who might be the most Just A Guy pitcher of his generation. His career ERA is 4.43. His career ERA+ is 97. His career winning percentage is .481. He’s pitched for 13 years, and he’s as likely to put up an ERA in the 5’s as he is the 3’s. He’s never pitched more than 200 innings in a season. Yet, all of this adds up to a player who has a relatively rare skill: He’s been a reliably valuable player for most of his career. When he was on a team, he was a net positive. Because when you’re Just A Guy, at least you’re not Ugh, Not That Guy.

When Feldman reached free agency before the 2014 season, the Astros looked at his resume and said, Yes, this player is desirable. They gave him $30 million for three years. When casual fans balked, it was up to the nerds to interject with a, “No, this is fine. This is the price of league-average pitching.” And it was. That was the price of league-average pitching.

Well, that was the price of league-average pitching.

In 2017, Feldman had a typical Feldman season, with an ERA and ERA+ mark close to his career averages. He’s older now, so he knew he wasn’t going to get another $30 million, but there was still a need for someone like him on one of the teams in baseball, right?

He’s still a free agent. Nobody wants to pay more than they have to for someone who can be Just A Guy. It’s not just Feldman, either. There are lots of Just A Guys in baseball, except none of them are getting paid like they had been. It used to be that teams snatched up pitching depth early in the offseason because they didn’t want to be without a chair when the music stopped. Now pitchers like Brett Anderson and Feldman can’t even get 25-man roster spots. Teams aren’t interested in paying more than a million dollars over the minimum salary for Just A Guys (see: the contracts just handed out to Trevor Cahill and Clay Buchholz.)

Kansas City Royals v Toronto Blue Jays
Mike Moustakas never saw his free agency pay day.
Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Teams aren’t interested in these veterans because they have their own people for that now. They always have, but teams are incentivized to use them more now. There isn’t the urge to pay an extra million for a 10 percent chance to get five percent better. And, besides, the best players are usually the cheapest players. Which is to say, the best players are the youngest players, and every team should have a stable of younger players.

Every team does have a stable of younger players, and they’re more willing than ever to rely on them. Out of all those kids — all of whom would be happy to move from a $30,000 salary to a half-million per year — there has to be one of them who can be Just A Guy.

There usually is. Teams are much better at finding, drafting, and developing them now. And it’s all snowballed into the offseason we just watched, in which the young players are still getting hosed by design, but now the veteran Just A Guys are too. And it’s happening to more than the veterans at the back end of the roster. Alex Cobb is a fine pitcher, much more than Just A Guy, but his signing would force a team to give up a young player in the draft and several millions. This is why former Cy Young candidate Jake Arrieta had to wait until March to sign, and why All-Star Mike Moustakas had to crawl back to his old team, the Royals, which was the only one that didn’t have to give up a draft pick for him. He signed for one year, $6.5 million (and plenty of incentives) in an offseason when he was supposed to get up to $92 million.

If both the veterans and rookies are getting hosed, there’s trouble-a-brewin’ on the ol’ labor market. Something will have to give. My guess is that it will be the rookies, because it’s always been the rookies, but I’m also not seeing how the trend of teams refusing to overpay free agents is going to change.

It is, in the words of A. Bartlett Giamatti, quite a fucking pickle* for the Players Association.

* He probably said this about something at one point in his life, don’t be a lawyer.

Just throwing it out there: What if rookies all got to be free agents, and then when their contracts expired, or they turned 30, teams got to draft them and pay them the major league minimum for three years as they declined, heading to arbitration after those three years?


Okay, just a thought. Sorry, we’ll keep going.

Think it over, though.

This recent offseason is the logical endpoint of a hyper-logical devolution of free agency. The implicit bargain that’s kept baseball (mostly) humming since the ‘80s — enjoy the lawyer money, young players, because the rock star money is coming — is dead.

One of the reasons, pointed out often, is that free agency is a bad investment. Hands up if you’re confident that Alex Cobb is going to make an All-Star team within the next two years, much less four. Now try the same exercise with R.A. Dickey or Melky Cabrera. It’s impossible to guarantee if any of them will be useful at all. All we have are guesses, and teams have stopped paying scores of millions on guesses.

The only problem is that labor peace was predicated on teams paying for those guesses. It worked because teams were willing to pay too much to older players on their way out. It was a necessary carrot to the players who were making the minimum salary: Pay your dues, avoid calamitous injuries, and get paid to start sucking in your 30s. It’s a very, very specific American dream, but it qualifies.

Teams balked this offseason, though, because of just how much it costs to get average veterans compared to developing average young players themselves. There was a tipping point, and we all missed it. Every team is drunk on young players’ wine now, and the detox will be fierce.

There’s a reason why teams have gone in this direction, and it doesn’t have to be nefarious. While it tickles us to think about a shadowy cabal of owners colluding in smoky conference rooms, the real truth is a lot more boring. Young players have always been cheaper and better, but they’ve never been a necessity for every single team, from the Yankees to the Rays, quite like this, and here’s what’s changed: Fans are okay with this now.

That’s the biggest reason for the rise of young, cheap players. Fans have bought into the idea that young players are the best, and they’re not wrong. Young players are better, and young players are cheaper, and the part about them costing less allows teams to spend money on complementary veterans. Young players also allow teams to keep the homegrown players they’re used to. Jose Altuve was used as an example of an underpaid player in the introduction, but between writing that sentence and publishing it, he signed a lucrative extension (five years, $151 million). The Astros were able to give him that money because they had enough young, cheap players to subsidize the contract.

Get more young players and improve your chances to win. More than that, it improves the chances of winning sustainably. The Astros, Cubs, Dodgers, and Yankees are all stuffed with young stars who should still be excellent in five years. Compare them to the jury-rigged Giants, who have an Expendables 2-ass roster and will have to be completely remade within the next couple years. Fans of all 30 teams have figured this out, and once the Yankees and Dodgers realized their bases were on board, the Adam Jones Industrial Average tanked.

Speaking of tanked, that’s not a dirty word anymore. Bad teams that decided not to spend money on veterans used to be considered cheap or poor or both. Now those teams are just being prudent, and they’re comfortable with this decision because fans are in on the young players. Yes, the fans cry, bring us young players. Give them early extensions like Madison Bumgarner and Chris Sale, and then use those savings to bring us more and more and more young players to keep the cycle going.

The business of prospects is booming, and Major League Baseball couldn’t be more pleased. Fans are into prospects. They’re into trading players they’ve heard of for prospects they haven’t, and they’re into being patient with the young prospects who will help their team win more games ... eventually.

Fans have gotten used to the dopamine that comes with every pull of the slot machine handle, and they are into it. A team that wins 85 games is a team that wins 85 games. But a team that wins 65 games while having a top-five farm system, why, that’s a team that could win 95 games. No, 105 games. Heck, 115. Prospects aren’t just future major leaguers; they’re memorable seasons and postseason runs that haven’t happened yet.

Back in January, I called it the Church of Young Players:

For young players are the light, the truth, the only salvation. They allow for something sustainable, something beautiful. When the 2020 Braves are on pace to win 100 games, it shall be the young players who will lead them, verily. Not only that, but the young players hath allowed teams to acquire overpaid veterans in July in the past, and the young players shall allow teams to acquire overpaid veterans in future Julys. Such is the bounty provided by young, cheap players in all their glory.

It certainly doesn’t hurt that the Cubs and Astros have provided a proof of concept in recent years, each of them quickly going from a complete teardown to a championship. Players aren’t just judged by their value to a team on the field. They’re also valued by how much they can allow their teams to spend at the deadline or in the offseason.

Baseball’s absolutely cool with the Church of Young Players, of course. It’s been a fever dream for years. Start with the idea that just one team out of 30 will win the World Series every year, and then read this quote from former commissioner Peter Ueberroth, from when he attempted to get the owners to collude in the 80s:

“Let’s say I sat each of you down in front of a red button and a black button,” he said at one early meeting. “Push the red button and you’d win the World Series but lose $10 million. Push the black button and you would make $4 million and finish somewhere in the middle.”

He paused to look around. “The problem is, most of you would push the red one.”

Ueberroth chided them for checking their business sense at the door. “You are so damned dumb.”

But what if you could get all 30 teams to push the black button, and one of them would still win the World Series? What if every front office realized that young players were essential to sustainable winning, and sustainable winning was the only way to keep fans and owners happy? The best way to do it would be to focus on the players in the first six or seven years of their careers, which is when they’re not paid enough. Young MLB players are usually the best and usually the cheapest. So why, unless you absolutely had to, would you have anyone else on your team to surround your biggest superstars?

Okay, these front offices all agree, perhaps independently. Okay, yes, this all makes sense. In a world in which beat writers write about prospects regularly to keep up with the churn of the internet, in a world with fantasy leagues that make players scout maternity wards, and in a world in which the last three World Series winners have all served as a proof of concept for developing young stars and keeping them together, the fans agree with the GMs. Young players are better. Owners look at the ledger of what young players cost, and, oh baby, are they ever on board.

It’s not just that fans are aware of how young players allow teams to save money and (ostensibly) spend more to improve the team. It’s not just that fans are aware that players under 30 happen to be better, and that they’ll continue being successful for longer, on average. It’s that young, homegrown players are fun. There’s a sense of discovery, of watching these prospects grow into something special. Everyone gets a chance to see Green Day at 924 Gilman before they sell a million records, and it’s an addictive feeling when your pet prospect becomes the next All-Star. Why get excited about boring ol’ Mike Moustakas when your team could draft a player with a three-percent chance of becoming the next Mike Moustakas?

The MLB Draft will never be the NFL Draft, but the first round is televised now, and the pre-draft hype is substantially more robust than it used to be. Prospects sell books and internet subscriptions, and the trading deadline for bad teams has turned into a million rabid fans screaming, “SHOW US THE FUTURE, BECAUSE THE PRESENT IS BUMMING ME OUT.”

This is all possible because the internet allows everybody to drill down and metaphorically subreddit the hell out of whatever they’re interested in. Fancy baseball, do you? Well, here’s news on the bottom of the 25-man roster. If it’s not enough, here’s news about the 40-man roster. Here’s news and opinions about players who might be added to the 40-man roster. Here’s a mock draft. Here’s a top-100 prospect list. Here’s the social media feed of those prospects. Here’s someone expertly breaking down a 5000-frames-per-second video of their swing or delivery.

Here are prospects and why they’re important.

Fans nod and go along with it. It makes so much sense. Young players are better. Young players are cheaper. Cheaper players allow teams to acquire the players who are somehow better without being young. Repeat, repeat, repeat.

This is why the most important baseball movie about the last 20 years wasn’t about a hard-luck player hitting a grand slam in the World Series, but a GM who didn’t have a lot of money to spend. Moneyball was about Billy Beane reinventing a wheel that was used to skin cats, but that’s only because it would have been boring to sit through two hours of me explaining why it was a huge advantage to have an underpaid Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito.

The stats were important, but those three cheap, young pitchers had more to do with the rise of the A’s than tubby, patient sluggers. The book and the movie ignored those lessons, but the rest of baseball and its fans internalized it after several proofs of concept. And it’s all led to a world where everybody wants underpaid Mike Moustakas, but nobody wants market-price Mike Moustakas.

It’s hard to imagine the MLBPA shrugging and kicking a can because, welp, that’s just how things are now. The reliance and sustainability of cheap, young players is a problem for the labor peace of baseball.

It isn’t a problem for the fans, though, because they get what these teams are doing, and they’re clamoring for more.

If you’re considering turning on the common fan for being so indifferent to the plight of the underpaid millionaires — yeah, not likely, but just in case — don’t forget that competitive balance depends on cheap, young players.

As we talk about how baseball has changed, it’s important to remember the days when baseball was broken.

The Kansas City Athletics didn’t have a chance in the ‘50s. They acquired a young, raw pitcher named Ralph Terry from the Yankees, polished him up, and traded him right back to the Yankees. They were derisively referred to as the Yankees’ farm team, and that wasn’t wrong. It was their job back then. They were a farm system for the Yankees, and the best they could do in the ‘50s was shovel players like Terry (or Roger Maris) to the big boys running the big-boy team.

The Kansas City Royals won the World Series three years ago because they had a bunch of underpaid young players. That’s a much better scenario for the city, and it’s a much better scenario for baseball.

This is what MLB Trade Rumors looked like back in the day:

There were 29 World Series played from 1936 to 1964. The New York Yankees played in 22 of them. They won 16. While there certainly are tales to tell about the organization’s superior scouting, coaching, and derring-do, the remarkable run of success had to do with how baseball was structured.

STEP 1: Develop several great baseball players because you can pay the most for scouting and signing bonuses.

STEP 2: Keep the players. This is easy because they’re tethered to the team FOREVER if the team wants. So keep them for as long as they’re productive, and pay them whatever you want.

STEP 3: Win a whole bunch of games.

STEP 4: Have amateur players decide between a) playing for the team that wins every year and gives out the biggest bonuses or b) going to a less successful team for less money.

STEP 5: Win more games with these new players.

STEP 6: Go back to Step 4.

The Kansas City Royals have a chance now where the Kansas City Athletics did not, and that’s mostly because of the advent of the MLB Draft in 1965. The draft was the great balancer in all this. Players couldn’t just choose the Yankees. Then they were underpaid for years, and then they got to stumble out into the wide world of free agency. While free agency allowed the Yankees to sign Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, it prevented them from keeping all of their best players indefinitely and without consequence.

This is where the delicate balance of baseball worked for so long. All it took was for the younger players to be the only ones to make a comparatively small amount of money. They were going to subsidize the huge contracts for veteran players with the newfound rights of free agency, but baseball was going to have more competitive balance, which is better for the sport and brings more money in, which starts the whole cycle over again.

Apparently, though, that ecosystem was always unsustainable, and all it took was for teams to attend a few sermons at the Church of Young Players. Even if half of the billions and billions of dollars being pumped into MLB is going to the players, which it probably isn’t, that 50 percent was always being allocated in a weird way, but at least there was something in it for the young players. Eventually. If the older players get less and less money, while the young players are still drastically underpaid, there will be labor problems.

Lemme just chop off a chunk of that last sentence:

There will be labor problems.

There are two solutions. Neither one will be easy. They might be impossible.

The first solution is to increase revenue sharing drastically. Institute the kind of revenue sharing like you see in the NBA, where the Oklahoma City Thunder can pay Russell Westbrook and acquire Paul George, despite playing in Oklahoma City.

All that would take is for MLB to get 30 different business interests to give up the particulars of their disparate TV rights and gate receipts and pool them for the common good, even though the current revenue-sharing system is already pissing off the big-market teams because the small-market teams aren’t spending enough of that money.

Maybe don’t wait for that to happen.

The second solution is to pay young players more money. If veterans aren’t going to get paid the way they used to, they’ll need something at the front end to make them feel better about it. It would make more sense, really, to pay players what they’re actually worth to a team. Paying a 24-year-old MVP the kind of money he’s earning for his team makes far more sense than tacking on a fifth year to the contract given to a 30-year-old MVP, just because that’s always how it’s been done.

If baseball is going to achieve the 50/50 revenue split that’s best for optics and everyone involved, the revenues will have to be allocated better. If the freaking Yankees and Dodgers are done paying mid-range veterans a lot of money, there’s nowhere else for the money to go.

If young players get paid more, will small-market teams still get to compete? Imagine Moneyball with Hudson/Mulder/Zito each making $10 million, like they deserved to. There wouldn’t have been money for Scott Hatteberg to learn that playing first base is incredibly hard.

That means the only way young players will get paid more and competitive balance will stick around is for there to be more meaningful revenue sharing, bringing MLB closer to the NBA.

All that would take is for MLB to get 30 different business interests to give up the particulars of their disparate TV rights and ...

Maybe don’t wait for that to happen.

We’re at a stalemate, then. And, more worryingly, so are the MLBPA and Major League Baseball. To get younger players paid more will take something of a civil war within the union. To get more revenue sharing will take something of a civil war among the owners. And if — if! — those civil wars get hashed out, there is still the very real war betwen the two parties, the kind that causes strikes and lockouts.

There doesn’t have to be a work stoppage when the collective bargaining agreement expires in 2021. But it’s looking like that’s the logical endpoint. Young players need to get paid more, or veteran players need to get paid like they used to. If it’s the first one, the teams will need to share more revenue. If it’s the latter, teams will need to spend money irrationally after realizing they don’t have to.

Neither one seems feasible. This is how a sport that’s chugging along, doing extraordinarily well by every financial indicator, can still be heading down a dark path. There are four years for both sides to develop solutions and figure it all out.

Hands up if you’re confident that’s going to happen.