More Than Money Disrupted MLB Market This Time

So, what does Jake Arrieta's deal with the Phillies really mean? Is it a sign that the rebuilding/rethinking/remodeling Phillies are more ready to contend than people think? A sign that certain players are forcing themselves or being forced to perform personal reality checks? A sign that baseball might be headed toward the end, or at least one disruption, of unprecedented labour peace? All the above?

Arrieta has a three-year deal worth $75 million overall, and $55 million of it will be paid to him in the first two years. If the Phillies don't move on trying to agree on an extension with him before those first two years finish, Arrieta can opt out of the deal and play the market again. And he may want to think twice about that considering what happened when he played the market this year.

For one thing, he wasn't the pitcher in 2016-17 that he was in 2014-15. Not even close. He was good enough to help the Cubs to that staggering World Series win in 2016, but good enough wasn't equal to that Cy Young Award-winning 2015. And, last year, Arrieta looked sharp enough at times but he no longer got deep into the sixth inning, if he got there at all.

For a 32-year-old starting pitcher, that was simply not going to get him either the $200 million he was known to seek on his next deal or even something equivalent to Jon Lester's $155 million. He'll be baseball's seventh highest-paid pitcher in 2018, based on the average annual value of his deal, but both Arrieta and the Phillies have to be concerned as to whether his best seasons may be behind him.

The Cubs were willing to offer Arrieta what they ended up handing Yu Darvish. Arrieta thought his market was a little better than that, possibly thinking in the back of his mind, too, that he didn't have Darvish's most recent taint. But that wasn't what Arrieta sought. And the Cubs decided they'd have a simpler time correcting what got Darvish murdered in Game 7 of the World Series than maybe overpaying an Arrieta who might be starting his downslope in earnest.

The Phillies probably think their mostly youthful pitching staff can only benefit from Arrieta's experience, and they're probably right. Just as they thought their infield would benefit from signing Carlos Santana — whose Indians got thatclose to beating Arrieta's Cubs in the 2016 Series — for three years and $60 million. The projections on such young Phillies as Rhys Hoskins, J.P. Crawford, and jack-of-all-trades-in-waiting Scott Kingery, and a pack of high-upside pitchers looming from the farm system, give Phillies fans something they haven't had in several years — optimism, and maybe a little excitement in the package.

What the Arrieta and Santana deals won't do just yet is give the players suggestions on how to overcome the manner in which they outsmarted themselves in the last collective bargaining agreement. Their championship of the qualifying offer did that to them. I'll let Yahoo! Sports's Jeff Passan explain:

"The qualifying offer, a mechanism put in place to compensate teams losing frontline free agents, also includes a salary dampener: it penalizes the teams that sign the players. In the previous CBA, the penalty was a first-round pick. This time around, as the parties were negotiating, they settled on something that may be even worse.

"Teams that pay revenue sharing — the richest half — give up second- and fifth-round draft picks if they sign a player with a qualifying offer attached. Multiple GMs pegged the value of a second-round pick between $6 million and $8 million. Additionally, $1 million of their international bonus-pool money is taken away. Teams value that million bucks at more like $5 million because the value of young players from Latin America is so much higher than what teams are allowed to spend.

"... And had the MLBPA simply agreed to an international draft instead of this capped system that restricts spending on amateurs, what, multiple sources say, could have been negotiated? An end to the qualifying offer."

That, Passan says, is how Mike Moustakas ended up re-signing with the Royals, as he did last week: "The draft picks and international money gave teams an excuse to offer him that much less money. Concerns over how his husky body would age limited the deal's length. The lack of viable third-base landing spots allowed for lowball offers. Moustakas misread the market desperately, waiting out a correction that never turned, hoping teams would prioritize winning when they sensed so many of their brethren weren't, falling prey like so many other players."

Not to mention that the coming 2018-19 free agency market has a far more attractive third baseman awaiting it, Manny Machado. And, with Machado likely to be on that market, in hand with Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw (assuming the Dodgers don't get to work on extending their franchise bellwether), and Madison Bumgarner (if the Giants don't work on extending him, letting him play the market rather than pick up his 2019 team option), it's not unrealistic to think of a large number of teams preparing for that market.

Arrieta signing with the Phillies isn't the only player whose new deal has his new club possibly thinking about fireworks this year. Lance Lynn signed a one-year, $12 million deal with the Twins. Twins players are said to be casting longing eyes on the postseason with that deal. Baseball realists are pondering that Lynn ended up signing for less than the Cardinals offered in their qualifying offer. Just as Moustakas did in returning to the Royals. (The Royals' qualifying offer was the same as the Cardinals' to Lynn: $17 million for 2018.) The Cardinals get a draft pick. Lynn and Moustakas gave themselves the shaft.

The Major League Baseball Players Association thinks teams like the Athletics, the Marlins, the Pirates, and the Rays haven't been spending their revenue-sharing money correctly. So says the grievance they filed last week. The union might want to ponder how that last CBA, and that last adjustment to the qualifying offer rules, shot themselves in part of the foot.

The Pirates have a problem that isn't as simple as what they will or won't spend. As ESPN's David Schoenfeld points out, they've been short-sighted drafters.


— 2008: They did draft Pedro Alvarez, who wasn't insignificant in their recent postseason entrants, but they could have had Eric Hosmer and Buster Posey.

— 2009: They did draft Tony Sanchez, who ended up with only 144 major league at-bats, when they could have drafted — even in a comparatively modest overall draft class — Stephen Strasburg, Mike Trout, or A.J. Pollock.

— 2010: They did draft Jameson Taillon, who may yet prove a solid major league pitcher, but they could have drafted Manny Machado.

— 2011: They did draft Gerrit Cole, who came as advertised ... except for that pesky little factor of five other first-round picks from that class producing more wins above replacement-level players, including Francisco Lindor ... who went eighth in that draft. And they no longer have Cole: they traded him to the Astros this winter for Joe Musgrove (starter-reliever), Michael Feliz (relief pitcher), Colin Moran (spare part at third base), and one prospect (Jason Martin, outfielder).

— 2012: They did draft Mark Appel. Appel didn't sign with the Pirates. The Pirates could have had either Addison Russell or Corey Seager in that draft. Appel ended up in the Astros organization, going number one in the following year's draft, where he was mishandled at one minor league stop, dealt with too many injury issues, and was finally traded to the Phillies in the package that got the Astros the star-crossed Ken Giles. Appel retired in February without pitching a single major league inning.

— 2013: They did draft Austin Meadows (ninth overall) and Reese McGuire (fourteenth overall), Meadows coming in the compensation pick they got when Appel declined to sign. Neither is in the Show yet. McGuire is now in the Blue Jays organization. Guess who the Pirates could have taken in that draft? Hint: A section of Yankee Stadium is now named after him by his adoring fans: the Judge's Chambers.

Meanwhile, that separate spring training camp for unsigned free agents continues apace. Little by little, it seems, the camp is becoming less crowded. But the current uneasy market corrections and the flaws in the last CBA continue likewise. Whether they're headed for a sensible resolution or a clash equal to the worst of the late 20th Century upheavals is anyone's guess for now.

But ponder this, too: The real stars didn't exactly hurt this winter. Darvish, Hosmer, and J.D. Martinez (five years, $110 million) should have showed that the market for true stars (however flawed) didn't exactly derail. There probably are teams who tried to be frugal this winter in order to be able to play next winter's market, which will be bigger than this one's was.

And something else has changed. Aside from the increased and deeper testing for actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, analytics have both deepened even the ordinary fan's understanding of what does or doesn't make a valuable player ... and shown only too many older players less valuable than they look.

Which is good and bad. Good because improving the play and perception of the game is always in baseball's best interest. Bad because nobody can figure out whether the owners are trying a new breed of collusion (as opposed to the clumsy mid-1980s ones that cost them dearly after exposure) or whether the players' agents are denying some critical realities.

The good news: baseball has four more years to unravel the new thickets. The bad news: it won't be simple. Take it from Nationals first baseman Ryan Zimmerman: "Because of analytics, the days when 30-year-olds get seven-year deals aren't going to happen very much anymore. I don't blame teams for that. It's smart." But then, as Zimmerman observes further, putting that much value into the first part of your career leaves open how players near the end still get a fair share of baseball's swelling revenues.

Remember: nobody buys a ticket to go to a ball game to see the team's owner. (The exceptions, usually involving boo birds over their outrages, are gone: George Steinbrenner and Charlie Finley, though some think Marlins fans would love to hit Derek Jeter where he lives.) Baseball's number one product is the game, and it's played by people. Something both sides want to consider while starting to think of the next CBA.

They have four years to do it. Four years is a long time. Normally.

Leave a Comment

Featured Site