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The price for a solid player in the COVID-19 offseason

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The Cardinals’ decision to decline Kolten Wong’s option is emblematic of what’s to come.

St Louis Cardinals v Kansas City Royals Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images

The 2020-21 offseason started with a rude awakening on Wednesday, as the Cardinals made the decision to cut ties with second baseman Kolten Wong. The team declined Wong’s 2021 option, valued at $12.5 million, instead opting to pay him a $1 million buyout.

As Kenny Kelly wrote, we’re (unfortunately) due for a long, brutal offseason. On Oct. 26, Rob Manfred told Barry Bloom of Sportico that MLB will post between $2.3 billion and $3 billion in operational losses this year, amassing more than $8.3 billion in debt.

Owners are already using the economic conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic to justify cost-cutting moves on the field. Rockies owner Dick Monfort, for one, sent an email to Colorado season ticket holders about how the season’s financial drain will impact the winter, writing, “There will be nothing normal about this offseason as the industry faces a new economic reality.”

None of this, of course, mentions that the Wilpons just sold the Mets to Steve Cohen for $2.4 billion during the pandemic, or that MLB struck a deal with TBS for rights to national baseball coverage worth $3.75 billion. Additionally, baseball has brought in revenues of close to $11 billion in recent years, and has a similar national baseball coverage extension with FOX valued at $5.1 billion — a 40 percent increase from the current deal — also officially kicking in for the 2022 season.

Without fans in the seats, and only 60 games instead of 162, it’s no surprise that there would be an incongruity between the financials in 2020 as compared to prior years. But, in past season, we had already begin to see cost-cutting measures in spite of the sport’s record revenues. The average player’s salary declined in both 2018 and 2019, the first time in at least 52 years that baseball players’ salaries fell in back-to-back seasons and just the fifth decline overall since records started in 1967.

With the convergence of a reduction in player salaries and the COVID-19 financial environment, we’re likely to see the average price for a player on the open market fall dramatically, even more so than we have in recent years, justified or not.

After the decision to part ways with Wong, Cardinals president of baseball operations John Mozeliak told reporters that the team’s payroll will decline in 2021, saying, “Obviously, the success of the Cardinals the last 20 years has been our gate revenue. I do think we might be more negatively affected than others.” The Cardinals have recently posted payrolls in the $160 million range.

Wong is a solid player, and it will be interesting to see how his performance is valued on the free agent market. He’s never been superb with the bat, slashing just .265/.350/.326 this year with a 92 wRC+, but his defense has been nothing short of excellent. By all metrics, Wong has been one of the best defensive second basemen in baseball, a skill that translates to substantial value even in spite of the close-to-average bat. In 328 games over the last three seasons, Wong has produced 7.9 WAR, putting him in the 73rd percentile among players with qualified playing time.

And it’s not as if the Cardinals were committing to a long-term obligation with Wong, either. This was a one-year, $12.5 million decision — really, a one-year, $11.5 million decision given that the $1 million associated with the buyout would get paid out in either scenario. This is already giving us some indication of how teams are going to value the middle free agent tier.

In their ranking of the top-50 free agents for the 2020-21 offseason, FanGraphs put Wong at No. 26, with Craig Edwards projecting a two-year, $15 million deal for him. The median crowdsource, a three-year, $29.1 million contract, and the average crowdsource, a 2.59-year, $25.7 million contract, came in much more favorably for Wong, but both seem on the high side to me. If the Cardinals weren’t willing to pay him $11.5 million over one year, why do we expect teams to pay about 85 percent of that figure on an annual basis and give him three guaranteed years? Unfortunately, that seems unlikely.

I see three potential comparative second baseman contracts here, with the caveat that Wong’s defense makes him a better player than the others. Jonathan Villar’s one-year, $8.2 million deal with the Marlins, Cesar Hernandez’s one-year, $6.25 million contract with the Indians, and Jonathan Schoop’s one-year, $6.1 million contract with the Tigers can all be used as jumping-off points. I’m also throwing in Mike Moustakas in the mix here, though it seems impossible that Wong would get anything close to his four-year, $64 million deal, especially because the Cardinals already decided they wouldn’t pay him $11.5 million for just 2021. Lastly, I do want to note that I considered including Jed Lowrie’s two-year, $20 million contract here. Even though his three-year performance (3.3 WAR/162) was more in line with Wong’s compared to the other second basemen here, Lowrie was heading into his age-35 season when the deal was signed.

Recent second baseman free agents

Player Age Contract Year wRC+ Contract Year WAR/162 3-Yr wRC+ 3-Yr WAR/162 Years Value
Player Age Contract Year wRC+ Contract Year WAR/162 3-Yr wRC+ 3-Yr WAR/162 Years Value
Kolten Wong 30 92 4.0 102 3.9 -- --
Cesar Hernandez 30 92 1.7 100 2.6 1 $6.25 million
Jonathan Villar 29 107 4.0 94 2.1 1 $8.2 million
Jonathan Schoop 28 100 1.7 102 2.2 1 $6.2 million
Mike Moustakas 31 113 3.2 110 2.6 4 $64 million

It’s clear that Wong is better than all of the players listed here, but that doesn’t necessarily tell us much about a potential deal.

In a “normal” market, I’d say that about $10 million to 12 million per season would make sense for Wong, which would somewhat easily justify an $11.5 million decision for just one season. In this new market, I’m in agreement with both Edwards and the FanGraphs’ readership. I do still think he will get a multi-year deal, but somewhere in the $8 million to $9 million per season range makes the most sense to me. I think you could see a two-year, $18 million deal if you favor a shorter-term contract, or something like a three-year, $24 million deal if you tack on an additional season. The FanGraphs’ average projected contract — a 2.59-year, $25.7 million contract — doesn’t seem too far outside the realm of possibility, though I would like to see a team try to sign Wong for exactly 2.59 years.

All of this is evidence meant to reiterate Kelly’s point: This is going to be a long offseason, and it already isn’t shaping up to be great for players. When a team that has ranked in the top-10 in payroll in four of the last five seasons decides that it can’t afford to pay a good-but-not-great player just $11.5 million, we can begin to catch a glimpse into what is going to be a tough winter.


Devan Fink is a sophomore at Dartmouth College and a Contributor at Beyond The Box Score. Previous work of his can be found at FanGraphs and his own personal blog, Cover Those Bases. You can follow him on Twitter @DevanFink.