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The benign explanation of baseball’s slow offseason

And the simple solution that will be impossible to implement.

San Diego Padres v Arizona Diamondbacks Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

It’s almost like baseball writers are secretly gathering together and collectively formulating the most relevant topic of the offseason. How else would you explain the recent spate of collusion articles? Jeff Passan has a whopper of a feature here, and our own Marc Normandin explored what’s going on here. It’s the hot topic in baseball, and these articles are being written because these writers are secretly setting the agenda. You know what I’m getting at, here.

Unless it’s just the obvious conclusion in an offseason where the guy who slugged .690 with 45 homers is struggling to find a job. There has to be something fishy going on.

But even in those articles, there are benign explanations offered for why players like Eric Hosmer and J.D. Martinez are still looking for a job. It doesn’t have to be because of 30 Lex Luthors all chuckling at their own brilliance. It just might be that this is a new generation of GMs who fully understand the long established truism that free agents are a bad investment.

This might be the new normal, then. And if it is, there will have to be some serious changes.

If you want evidence for this truism, allow me to present an article I wrote before someone peed out the flames in the hot stove. It’s about the top 50 agents of the 2012-2013 offseason, and the conclusion went like this:

  • Thirty-two players who are either retired or playing internationally.
  • Ten players who might play a role on a bench or in the back of a bullpen next year.
  • Three players who might play a significant role with their current/future team, but probably won’t.
  • Four players who are expected play a significant role with their current/future teams.
  • Zack Greinke.

Again, that’s the offseason from just five years ago. There are five out of the 50 top free agents who are expected to play a significant role with their team, and just one who might conceivably get votes for an end-of-season award. Free agents are aging players, by definition. Aging players get worse. Teams don’t like spending money on players, only to discover that they’re getting worse. You can see the pattern.

What’s gone right now, though, are the teams willing to say, “Screw it,” and pay for that extra fourth or fifth or sixth year as a tariff for immediately improving the roster. It used to be that the decline was baked in, and that’s just something teams had to deal with. The Giants are going to pay Hunter Pence $18.5 million this year because that was the price it took to keep him around in 2014, when he was excellent. When I reviewed the deal at the time, this was an explicit consequence.

When Hunter Pence is 34, he’ll probably be a total drag. When he’s 35, he’s going to be a player who would have to fight for a roster spot without the contract.

I’m not sure if he’d have to fight for a 25-man roster spot, so that doesn’t ring perfectly true, but it was easy to look at an extension in 2013 and predict how it was going to end. Poorly. They’re always going to end poorly, and that was just how it was always going to be. That’s how free agency and the long-term contract work.

The benign explanation of baseball’s slow offseason is that there are fewer teams willing to go for that fourth, fifth, or sixth year, and agents are used to getting them. That presents a stalemate, and here we are.

There’s a corollary to that, though, and it’s why teams are comfortable avoiding those expensive free agents as the final piece of their roster puzzle. It’s because they’re all worshipping at the church of the young player. The Cubs can spend money on Tyler Chatwood, Steve Cishek, and Brandon Morrow because they have a stable of young players making less than they’re worth. The Astros can trade for Justin Verlander because they’re overstuffed with young talent on all parts of the roster. Get that kind of inventory, and not only can you spend a little, but you don’t have to spend the big money. The Cubs don’t have to pay $300 million for a Kris Bryant; they have the actual Kris Bryant, and it turns out he’s far less expensive. The Astros don’t have to pay $300 million for a Carlos Correa; they have the actual Carlos Correa, and it turns out he’s far less expensive.

This isn’t where it ends, though. Rich teams can also worship at the church of the young player. The Yankees can afford Giancarlo Stanton and stay under the competitive-balance tax threshold because of their young players. The Dodgers can squeak under the threshold this year because of their young players, even though they spent $194 million to keep their own free agents last year. Cody Bellinger is basically paying rent to Justin Turner, who keeps raising it.

What we have are teams who are committed to this ideology:

  • Young players are better than old players.
  • Young players are cheaper than old players.

And why wouldn’t they be? With young players, all things are possible! Glory be to all the young, cheap, and valuable players. In Passan’s article, we find this quote:

“There’s less interest in winning than I’ve ever witnessed before,” one union official said. “MLB has done a fantastic job of convincing the public that’s OK. I think fan bases are accepting of losing now. Sometimes they even want their team to lose.”

That’s too reductive, though. It’s not that there’s less interest in winning; it’s that there’s more interest in becoming a team that’s swimming in 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.

When the Braves realize they can spend to improve on their cavalry of young players, they’ll be able to do so in an extremely targeted environment, getting exactly the player they want or need in the middle of a pennant race, and maybe having the other team kick in some money while they’re at it. Why would they spend on Jake Arrieta now when they don’t know what they’ll need in 2019 or 2020, when their top-ranked farm system is spitting out talent? Better to trade for Arrieta in two years if he’s still good.

Teams aren’t giving up when they don’t sign free agents. They’re just keeping their money and going on Indiana Jones-like hunts for young player idols, which will allow them to contend for years and years and years. Young players are cheaper. Young players are better. Oh, young players, we beseech thee to shine thy light of benevolence down unto...

At the risk of being a jerk, I would like to suggest the easy solution for this problem. And it is a problem. The current paradigm of young players subsidizing old players can’t sustain itself, if only because there are more young, underpaid players than old, overpaid veterans, and always will be. At some point, the veterans will realize that the money saved on young players doesn’t have to be funneled to them, and they’ll realize that pre-arbitration contracts and six/seven years of instant team control are keeping salaries down for everyone.

The solution, then, is this:

  • Pay young players more money.

Yeah, that’s pretty much all this mess needs. A solution that simple should be just as simple to implement, right? Well, uh, that’s where I’ll check out, because it would be incredibly hard. The owners and GMs aren’t going to give up their newfound religion. They’re fundamentalists now. And there’s something to the idea that pre-arbitration salaries and six/seven years of instant team control are what got the Rays into the World Series. It’s what got the Royals into a World Series parade. It’s why the Twins competed last year, and it’s why they might sign Yu Darvish this year. If you accept that baseball’s underrated competitive balance is great for the sport — and it is — that’s a tacit admission that cheap, young players are great for the sport. On one level.

So a solution would be about more than paying young players. It would be about revenue sharing to make up for the lost competitive balance, it would be about making sure there are safeguards to continue allowing teams like the Pirates to give Andrew McCutchen an extension. Baseball wouldn’t be better if the Twins couldn’t keep Byron Buxton after this year because he was going to be a free agent. The solution isn’t as simple as making young players free agents much earlier.

But paying young players more money is how veterans will seem like a more reasonable roster-building solution. The benign explanation of this slow offseason doesn’t involve collusion, but it does involve a twisting of baseball’s framework to get exactly what the owners have always wanted, which is just a tricksy way of colluding within the rules.

If baseball’s financial system is broken because of the Church of Young Players, maybe it’s time to give those young players more money. That would seem like a great way to get everyone their appropriate slice of baseball’s gooey revenue pie. The details will be incredibly complicated and likely cause a six-year strike but, whoops, I’m out of time.

That’s the problem with the offseason, though. Let’s see if there’s a way to fix it.