The theory of why the very best free agents in baseball get the money they do can be summed up succinctly by a Bill James quote from the 1988 Baseball Abstract: “Talent in baseball is not normally distributed. It is a pyramid. For every player who is 10 percent above the average player, there are probably twenty players who are 10 percent below average.”
This basically has two arguments herein. One is that for each rung you increase in talent, it gets harder and harder to get to the next rung. It’s also a statement about scarcity; for each rung you go up you cut the talent pool exponentially, leaving just a sole Mike Trout at the very top when you’re finished.
This scarcity is at the root of why Bryce Harper got $330 million and why, say Nelson Cruz got $26 million. Both put up WAR figures that were nearly identical in 2019, but the fact remains that while older, DH-like sluggers are a common archetype that doesn’t have much long-term value, a 26 year-old superstar is undeniably rarer.
That leads to what’s considered unfairness in the free agent process, especially for older players who find themselves in a weird position. Consider the case of Yasiel Puig for a second. Puig has made his money already, sure, inking a seven-year,$42 million contract out of Cuba, but he now hits free agency at the supposedly ripe age of 29, when your physical peak may be slightly past but where there should still be a few more good years.
Unfortunately, as Rob Arthur puts it, teams are not paying you for the player you once were, but the player you actually are right now. Puig is not the player who hit .296/.382/.480 in 2014 but instead the player who has a reverse-platoon who may have hit 24 home runs last year, the second-most of his career, but had an overall wRC+ that was merely league average. He continues to strike out more, and his ISO plunged 30 points.
Yet there’s still reason to believe he could still be a useful hitter, especially on a 26-man roster. Looking at his exit velocity trend actually shows that he had about the same fluctuation... as he always has:
I also think he’s not that much of a liability in the outfield, so I will give him that. Statcast’s Outs Above Average pegged him as completely average last year, and while he was worth -5 in 2018, it seemed a little more out of trend; he has mostly fluctuated between -2 and 2 OAA his entire career.
So, in that case... what gives? MLB Trade Rumors may have predicted a one-year, $8 million deal, and yet he remains unsigned. The answer goes back to what I was just referring to in the beginning, that the talent pool at that rung is too large to justify paying exactly market-rate at an earlier date for what is a more widely available player-type.
Cleveland, for example, is the kind of team that would prefer internal solutions like they did in ‘19. They acquired Franmil Reyes from the Padres, essentially a similar kind of player in terms of value, and Bradley Zimmer, Jordan Luplow, Domingo Santana, and Tyler Naquin are enough depth that Puig’s win-and-a-half is just not going to cut it marginally.
The Tigers are the ideal target as MLBTR puts it, but as we’ve seen, the baseball incentives just aren’t aligned for a signing like that. Tanking has created the perfect storm for a player of Puig’s ilk: for teams good enough, internal options make the marginal addition lessened, and teams who could use a bump are disincentivized at improving in such a small way due to the tanking benefits.
Does that mean Puig is unplayable? Most certainly not. But in an era of hyper-optimization, cost-cutting, and tanking, players who are merely slightly-below-average are not in hot supply for getting guaranteed dollars. The bombast, dynamism, and excitement Puig provides is a dare-I-say intangible that I personally think the league should value, but when you’re near the bottom of the pyramid, you’re just one of many.