Given that the free agent class for this year is a little thin, it may seem odd that two proven hitters — Jose Bautista and Mark Trumbo — would have trouble finding lucrative offers. However, these two players waited much longer than most of their peers to sign, becoming one of the most interesting offseason storylines as 2016 ended. While Bautista finally signed with the Blue Jays earlier this week for one year and $18 million, and Trumbo agreed to a three-year, $37.5 million deal with the Orioles yesterday night, the length of time that these two deals took to finalize is still odd.
The peculiarity of this situation is interesting: Why would two high-profile hitters of proven value not sign large contracts immediately? The answer — one that relies both on the state of hitting in baseball and the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) — is that these two players hit free agency at an extremely inopportune time for their status and skills.
The single most important skill that Trumbo and Bautista brought to the Orioles and Blue Jays, respectively, over their last contracts was power hitting. Trumbo’s clout is easy to spot, since his 47 home runs led all of baseball last season. Bautista was less impressive, only hitting 22, but this was a down season (largely due to injuries). Bautista is still a known power threat who should be a productive hitter in 2017.
However, this skill has become less valuable recently because of baseball’s dramatic increase in home runs. This has been a subject of great discussion across the baseball world, drawing a high-profile piece from FiveThirtyEight (and prompting numerous other articles and arguments). As the FiveThirtyEight article notes, the home-run rate across the majors in 2016 was historically high. The reasons for this power surge are interesting, but beside the point here, since the main takeaway from increased home runs across the league is that individual power hitters become slightly more replaceable (and less valuable).
Even in a league where their most important talent is easier to find, Trumbo and Bautista are still valuable players. However, the draft pick that other teams would lose by signing them cuts into their value as well. Any team looking to bringing Bautista or Trumbo would give up not only the individual contract, but also a pick in the next draft as compensation. Essentially, these players’ cost is more expensive than many other free agents.
According to Fangraphs, free agents of roughly Bautista’s and Trumbo’s talents (by WAR) have already been signed. Ivan Nova and Carlos Beltran — two players with similar value to Trumbo — have already signed one- and three-year deals. In fact, Trumbo had the highest WAR of any free agent who hadn’t yet signed a deal as of Thursday afternoon.
A similar story is true for Bautista as well. FanGraphs projects that he will have roughly the same value in 2017 as Yoenis Cespedes, who signed a four-year, $110 million contract with the New York Mets. While age is clearly a factor here — Cespedes (31) is almost exactly five years younger than Bautista (36) — it can’t account for the over $90 million disparity in guaranteed money. That two players with such similar values would sign dramatically different contracts shows how much the current baseball environment has hurt Bautista’s value as well.
Unfortunately, Bautista and Trumbo missed a more favorable CBA — that would have increased their respective values — by a year. The newest CBA makes significant changes to the draft pick compensation in place, making it much more palatable for teams to sign players like Trumbo and Bautista in the future. Since these two hit free agency in 2016 though (and not 2017), they cannot benefit from this new structure for at least a year.
Bautista and Trumbo are two very talented players, and both eventually found contracts for 2017. Compared to a season or career-ending injury, or any number of other misfortunes, hitting free agency at a time when their skills are slightly less valuable and a year before they look more favorable to other teams isn’t terrible. However, it’s undeniable that the Blue Jays’ and Orioles’ stars had their free-agent value diminished by environmental factors. That, in large part, is why they have taken so long to find new contracts.