7 of the top 10 free agents on CBS’s Free Agent tracker this offseason remain unsigned. For the first time ever, there will be 31 “teams” holding spring training camps, the additional one entirely designated to free agents. Over 100 free agents hit the market at the conclusion of the 2017 season, and a large majority of them still remain. Free agency has been such an engaging focus this offseason that accusations of owner collusion and threats of a player strike are becoming slightly more realistic day by day. With the increasing presence of “parasitic” sports agents, is the lack of free agent signings coincidental or an intentional move by either agents or GMs/front offices? Even in mid-February, the MLB could genuinely make a competitive expansion team, possibly even two teams (get out your old Montreal Expo’s jerseys) with the depth of the free agents on the market still..
Before jumping into blame, look at the actors of the game that is free agency. Owners, GMs, and front offices in general have moved towards a different player scouting style the last two decades. The image of an old former player watching in the bleachers with a big lip of chewing tobacco in has been replaced by the advanced data analysts and statisticians. Talent is no longer evaluated in the same way as it was in the 90s or even the early 2000s. Then we have the sports agents. Ignoring Scott Boras momentarily, sports agents and players are asking for bigger and bigger contracts. Sometimes players have the right to ask for $20+ million per year. Clayton Kershaw was 2017’s highest paid player in baseball, and he has consistently performed at a level that warrants such a large salary. It’s also important to remember that this is not a one-on-one matchup between owners and players/agents. The MLB Players Association is also culpable for the slow offseason hot stove. The leaders of the MLBPA ignored the gradual systematic change by teams with regards to player development, player and game analysis, and team finances. Major League Baseball also plays somewhat of a role into the situation as well, however in a statement to Yahoo Sports, the MLB pointed its fingers at an unnamed sports agent for the slow offseason and stalled negotiations. “There are a variety of factors that could explain the operation of the market. We can say that without a doubt collusion is not one of them. It’s difficult to pinpoint a single cause, but it certainly is relevant that an agent who has a long track record of going late into the market controls many of the top players.” Just who could that unnamed agent be?
As a fan, hearing that your favorite player just signed with Scott Boras is a double-edged sword. On one side, that player is about to get paid, but on the other side, there’s also a very good chance that he’s not returning to your favorite team once he hits free agency. The most obvious and recent example is Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury played a significant role on the Red Sox during his career there, especially the final three years. He almost single handedly kept the Red Sox somewhat alive during their 2011 September collapse. In 2010, Ellsbury led the Red Sox in hits. In 2011, he led the team in home runs. He led also led the team in stolen bases in 2008, ‘09, ‘10, ‘11, and ‘13. Ellsbury even finished second overall in the AL MVP vote in 2011. How many times has a star Red Sox player decided to sign with the team’s oldest and most famous rival in free agency? Well since Boras became a high profile player agent, all three of the players to do so had Boras as their agents – Johnny Damon, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Stephen Drew.
In 2005, Johnny Damon specifically said “There’s no way I can go play for the Yankees, but I know they’re going to come after me hard. It’s definitely not the most important thing to go out there for the top dollar, which the Yankees are going to offer me. It’s not what I need.” Guess who convinced him the Yankees’ top dollar was exactly what Damon needed. Boras obviously acts in the interest of his clients, but he has a very consistent track record of acting on the interest of his company over his clients. If his player doesn’t get the top dollar that Boras feels he deserves, Boras will not allow his client to sign anywhere.
Sports focus on fans almost more than they focus on the athletes. While the fans like to admit it or not, sports is a major entertainment industry and more importantly a business. Last year alone, the Yankees organization made $518 million in revenue and is currently valued at $3.4 billion. Suddenly asking for an additional $5 million per year seems like pennies on the dollar compared to the profits many of these teams are pulling in on top of their expenses. Which brings us right back to Scott Boras – a player represented by Scott Boras has broken the MLB record for annual salary or total salary 5 times, including the first ever $50 million contract, first $100 million contract, and Alex Rodriguez’s $252 million contract. Boras wants his clients to get the most money possible from whatever team is willing to pay.
According to columnist Jeff Passan, “Agents are logging discussions with teams and the union hunting for patterns to explain why clubs, whose franchise values have exploded from $18.1 billion to $46.1 billion over the last five years, will propose top players contracts with average annual values in excess of $20 million or deals for more than three years but are loath to offer both.” So is this a case of laborers looking to get their fair share? Historically labor unions are created to combat poor working conditions and unfair wages. The MLBPA officially unionized in 1966 with the former union chief of US Steel Marvin Miller serving as Executive Director.
Before 1966, there were multiple previous attempts by players to unionize, but team managements maintained their total control over players’ contracts. Former player Curt Flood famously filed a lawsuit against MLB Commissioner Bowie Kuhn in 1972 claiming the lack of free agency and use of the “reserve clause” in contracts was an example of modern slavery. While Flood lost in the Supreme Court, the MLBPA and Marvin Miller worked to establish free agency by 1975. Miller helped raised player wages during his tenure, helped negotiate collective bargaining agreements, and bettered the game of baseball for the players that have led to the billion dollar industry baseball’s become.
The case of J.D. Martinez is probably the most covered this offseason, with the media, the Red Sox, the Diamondbacks, and Scott Boras all reporting different offers. Last season, Martinez hit .303/.376./.690 with 45 home runs….all while only playing 119 out of 162 games. Suddenly Giancarlo Stanton’s 59 home runs in 162 games last season doesn’t seem as impossible (Martinez had a .014 advantage in home runs per game and .005 advantage in home runs per at-bat). For someone to put up such strong offensive numbers yet only receive a multi-year deal from the Red Sox and a one year-deal from his former team is somewhat suspicious. General managers and team owners have different reasons for scouting and passing over certain free agents, but more than just 2 out of the 30 MLB teams should be looking at someone who can contribute so much offensively. Collusion against all free agents available sounds less plausible than collusion against Boras agents specifically. Despite what the media and even the MLBPA have been claiming this offseason however, teams aren’t explicitly colluding against anyone. Different teams have different competitive tactics, with some teams tanking rebuilding, others publicly waiting for the 2019 offseason market, and others seeking to avoid the luxury tax.
Boras’ practices have driven up the cost of operations for owners, who in turn pass it onto fans exclusively in the form of $9 Bud Lights. Boras uses his previous contracts for players as references to explain the state of the free agent market and increase his client’s salaries. As exploitative as this is, Boras is a damn good sports agent with negotiation skills better than anyone else in the entire sports industry. Fans have a right to hate Boras and his tactics, but to blame the entire 2017-18 offseason market on him is not necessarily fair either. He’s just another player of the game that is contractual negotiations.
The imposition of the luxury tax is also arguably one of the biggest reasons for this offseason. As more players are making $20+ million per year, owners can’t “afford” to sign every big name free agent on the market without paying heavy taxes and even possibly forfeiting future draft picks. (I’m not advocating against the luxury tax though, because without it the Yankees, Red Sox, and Dodgers could recreate the “super team” issue that exists in the NBA). Teams also don’t want to be burned by Boras as they have been in the past. The Yankees are stuck with probably the worst contract in baseball right now with Jacoby Ellsbury. The Tigers are also paying Prince Fielder $24 million per year through 2020 thanks to a Scott Boras contract… and Fielder retired back in 2016. The owners should not be faulted for being good businessmen, nor should the players and their agents be faulted for seeking the highest contracts possible. Boras wants his players to be compensated by the billionaire owners who make their money directly from the abilities of his clients. The only issue is that in both the game of contractual negotiations and actual baseball, fans are left disappointed more frequently than they celebrate.