From small rumblings at the turn of the new CBA to a full-blown roar as we head into the 2019 season, there is concern among fans, the press, and the union that free agency is irreparably broken. That voice made its way to one of the biggest in the business, Ken Rosenthal, who wrote for The Athletic the following:
“[T]here is a growing consensus in the sport that the system is broken... in recent years, clubs have started pointing to aging curves on players who hit the open market at anywhere near 30... The clubs, it appears, have simply figured out how to take advantage of the system, much as the players took advantage of the system in the past. Change is needed — change that would enable players to receive their highest salaries during their 20s, when they are at their most productive.”
The issue with arbitration and younger players is one that’s going to be nearly impossible to decouple in the coming CBA negotiations. Just based on the last negotiations, it’s already tilted so heavily to the owners that there are still even corrective measures needed to address the luxury tax and service time manipulation, let alone the entire economic structure.
Making arbitration more in line with performance would be a start, but there are still areas where it’s nearly impossible. Teams have access to more data, so whatever vector is chosen to determine arbitration salaries, even if they’re more objective in nature, would give teams the ability to prioritize their team’s needs around non-emphasized stats. The Royals built their World Series team’s finances around cheap arbitration prices based on defense, and that won’t change.
There is one area where it can change, though, and rather easily: the time teams are given to sign players. Based on recent analyses, waiting out free agents seem to be the most effective leverage teams have at their disposal. At Royals Review, Max Rieper found that players who signed before January 1st received 4% more than the FanGraphs estimate, and players who signed afterward got 25.3% less than the estimate.
This means that February signings have sky-rocketed since 2014, as documented by Travis Sawchik:
Here’s my solution: ban them. My solution would be to introduce a free agency signing period that would be defined and finite, and not something that the owners can use to hold out players until the season begins, when players also, rightfully, deserve the time to gear up for the season and find a place to live and settle their families.
There are problems with something like this, of course. Do owners just do the same blinking game with a more solid deadline? Possibly. There’s also the question of what you do with the eventual stragglers that can’t sign by the deadline, where the answer should not be that they are barred from playing.
The best method may actually be making it something like a soft(ish) deadline, where there is an actual toothed punishment for the team to not comply by the deadline, but also allow them to sign a major league player if it’s truly needed.
Instead of the punishments being about the luxury tax, it could be about this; teams would think differently about waiting players out if it meant their international pool money or draft spot or pool draft pool money was at stake. Because at the heart of it, the issue here is that teams are prioritizing either tanking, or only prioritizing the cheap, controlled talent coming down the pipeline. Removing that option if they try to toy with free agent leverage would be a good way to eat away at that power dynamic.
This is all speculation, and a MLBPA under Tony Clark likely does not have the union mandate, power, or will to engage in such an adversarial relationship with the owners, despite the fact we’re past the point where he should. But instituting a shorter signing period, either a defined date like January 1st or a “bonanza” option of making it during the Winter Meetings, would force teams to scramble to give players their due... or else another team quickly will.