For the past two offseasons, spanning from when the final pitch of the World Series is thrown to the first pitch of the following season, there’s been a big dark cloud hanging over Major League Baseball.
We’ve seen teams not showing interest in perhaps two of the best free agents of recent memory. We’ve seen major league caliber players relegated to minor league deals. We’ve seen a plethora of free agents become shocked by team’s level of interest in them, only to be forced to accept a deal much less than what they were expected to get. We’ve seen explanations that show inconsistencies in what teams tell us they value.
As for this offseason, the main discussion has circled around the first example I brought up. Whether it be an over-balance of non-competitive teams, owners taking away all the positives that have come from the increased revenue in baseball, teams using the word “analytics” to point to why signing long-term deals isn’t the smart move, or some other dry/weak/empty excuse, it’s a disgrace to this sport that Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are still free agents.
Many would strongly disagree with that statement, but the fact of the matter is that revenues are increasing, players are driving the revenue, and the players that reach free agency aren’t seeing those increases in their new deals. And I haven’t even brought up the issues with minor league salaries.
The issues with Machado’s and Harper’s free agency are big, don’t get that wrong. But they aren’t the biggest right now. The most immense problem lies with the middle-tier free agents.
The motivation behind this article comes after the second free agency of Mike Moustakas’s career comes to a stop, as he inked a one-year, $9 million deal to return to the Milwaukee Brewers. From a value perspective, it seems like a great deal for the Brewers. He’s a bat that’ll strengthen their lineup against righties, he’ll provide stable defense at third, and provide depth in what looks to be a tight NL Central race.
But I’m not here to talk about all of that.
If you follow the baseball offseason closely, you’d know that free agency hasn’t been a kind experience to Moustakas. He headed into free agency with hopes of inking a multi-year contract worth roughly $15 million annually. Confidently, and rightfully so, he declined a qualifying offer from the Royals worth $17.4 million for one year (attaching the draft pick to him didn’t help his case either).
Shortly after, early in the offseason, he reportedly declined an offer from the Angels, but that was debunked from multiple sources. He had to wait weeks into Spring Training to finally find his team, returning to the Royals on a one-year, $6.5 million deal. Other reports said that was his FIRST offer of the whole offseason to the third baseman worth 2.1 fWAR the previous season.
The difference between last offseason and this one for Moustakas was one simple thing. He fortunately (and unfortunately) knew what to expect. These past few months were essentially a repeat for him.
This brings up the question: why are these middle-tier free agents seemingly struggling to find a payday more than they have in the past? Using seasonal fWAR and age numbers with constraints, I came up with a loose definition for a middle-tier free agent that aren’t in age ranges that would severely impact their contract (1.5-3.5 fWAR, age 27-31). These are all comparable free agent cases to that of Moustakas’s.
Separating into each respective offseason, here are what the contract numbers looked like.
Middle-tier free agents success by offseason
Visualizing this better, it’s pretty clear these group of free agents have struggled with AAV relative to their value and length in their contracts.
If that graph isn’t damning enough, let’s adjust for the revenue increase.
Yikes. For middle-tier free agents in 2015-16, teams were paying on average (adjusted for revenue) $7.1 million for one win from each middle-tier free agent—back when Mike Leake and Wei-Yen Chen were signing $80 million deals. The next two offseasons saw the figure drop, hovering around $4.5 million. This offseason (with Marwin Gonzalez still unsigned) it’s currently at $3.7 million, nearly a 50% decrease from three years ago. They’ve by far have had it the worst.
These middle-tier free agents are by no means someone you should tie your budget around. But in most cases, they offer plenty of value to teams, particurlay contending ones, as average to above-average spots in the lineup and/or depth. We’ve seen players like Mike Moustakas, Jhoulys Chacin, and Dexter Fowler make differences throughout the season, but they aren’t being paid like it. And it’s getting worse.