When Jason Heyward signed his monster eight-year, $184 million deal with the Chicago Cubs, the signing was understood by most across the game.
Heyward was entering his age-26 season when the deal was signed. Because he entered the league so young, Heyward hit free agency early. In theory, the Cubs were paying for not just the production Heyward had provided over his first six big league seasons. They thought that Heyward’s prime was still to come, thus explaining the length and dollars they were willing to cough up for a career .268/.353/.431 hitter to that point. It made sense.
Of course, nobody could have expected Heyward’s huge collapse over the next couple seasons, making the contract pretty much a sunk cost for Chicago, at least offensively. Heyward remains among the best defensive outfielders in the league, but that’s harder to see as tangible value for the deal. By most standards, the deal did not pan out.
Like Heyward, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will be entering their age-26 seasons when they are free agents this offseason. Carlos Correa will be entering his age-27 season when he’s a free agent in 2021. Corey Seager will be 28 when he hits free agency, as will Francisco Lindor, Byron Buxton and other young exciting talents. Mike Trout will be entering his age-29 season, more on the cusp of being a “young free agent.”
Baseball has been praised for a young class of players that has injected life into the league. It really began with Harper and Trout about six years ago and has grown into a league-wide phenomenon.
What will interest me, of course, is how this impacts team spending. After seeing one of the most inactive free agent classes in free agent memory, will the youth movement have any sort of long-term impact on spending?
I was originally inclined to say yes, but now I’m not so sure. These players will certainly be more attractive free agents because of their youth, but they are still talents that would have gotten paid even if they were three or four years older. In my mind, Harper is Harper, and while a 26-year-old Harper is certainly more of an enticing free agent than a 30-year-old Harper, teams would have been salivating over him all the same.
The rest of the league, then, remains unaffected. The average age of baseball players across the league has remained relatively stable since 2010, even with the influx of these great young stars. The important word in that sentence, then, becomes “stars,” as these are players that will sell tickets and be valuable, even if they are signing contracts in their early-30s. The stars should always have their deals; the middling free agents, like we saw this season, are still likely squeezed. It will be interesting to see how these evolves over the next few years.
One way that spending has changed, though, is through the “extension for promotion” deals that are becoming increasingly common in the league. Jon Singleton is an example, so is Scott Kingery, who earned a spot on the Phillies’ Opening Day roster after signing a six-year, $24 million extension that allows the team to have control over three free agent years.
The league becomes worse off if these deals are the ones that become more prevalent. Teams have all the leverage when it comes to promoting prospects — if teams truly valued winning over anything, including money, then Vladimir Guerrero Jr. should have been already up in the majors by now. Juan Soto seems like a counterexample, but the Nationals really had no choice after all of their outfield depth went down to injury.
On the surface, the youth “movement” in baseball could have been thought to change how teams think and spend. After all, the best teams are those that pay for future production, not past production. But, in reality, those stars have always been getting their money, but the middling free agents are still going to be the ones that are hurt the most.
Devan Fink is a Featured Writer for Beyond The Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.