The Media Column: MLB's free agency freeze has been downright embarrassing, and shows why it's doomed if things don't change

Alex Reimer
February 21, 2019 - 12:03 pm
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Baseball’s glacial free agent market serves as a perfect symbol for the biggest problem that ails America’s former pastime: nothing happens, and when something actually does happen, it takes forever. 

In a sport where the ball isn’t even put into play 31-percent of the time, roughly two dozen veteran free agents remain unsigned just days before Spring Training games begin. One of them, Bryce Harper, is a transcendent 26-year-old talent who could capture multiple MVP trophies over the next decade. Another one, Craig Kimbrel, is statistically the best closer who’s ever lived. The rest, ranging from former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel to five-time All-Star Adam Jones, could help almost any team in the big leagues.

But just like analytics have engineered hitters to dismiss strikeouts, general managers and number crunchers largely don't see the point in overpaying free agents for their previous performances. On top of that, the Astros and Cubs recently won championships after bottoming out for several seasons, ensuring they would pick at the top of the draft and have access to some of the most talented baseball players in the world at well below market value.

From a pure business standpoint, most of these austerity measures make sense. Why should the lousy Tigers shell out $50 million for Marwin Gonzalez to play second base when they can pay some scrub close to the league minimum? 

Or why should the Blue Jays, who are projected to lose 100 games, break camp with stud prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr., when they can option him to the minors for two weeks and delay his free agency for an additional year?

The answer is, because signing recognizable free agents and putting highly touted young players on your Opening Day roster excites the fans. People like to see their teams make an effort to win. But that’s not happening in baseball. The fans are secondary to the data, whether it’s removing an ace starting pitcher with 75 pitches thrown for an anonymous left-handed specialist or refusing to engage in free agency. 

The game's decision-makers aren't putting the fans first -– from pitchers refusing to embrace the pitch clock to owners not opening their checkbooks. It's shameful. 

Thanks to the latter phenomenon, baseball might as well have disappeared since the end of the World Series. While the NFL and NBA capture headlines 12 months per year, MLB fades to the background when games aren't being playrd. Free agency in those two sports is a rapid-fire frenzy, filled with publicized late-night dinners and five-star showcase tours. Baseball lacks all of that. 

“Baseball has really screwed up something here,” HardBallTalk founder Craig Calcaterra told WEEI.com on the phone. “The net effect is, the hot stove season has always been baseball’s best free publicity all year. It is the one time all year when fans of every team have at least some optimism. We know all of the cliches about the hot stove season and what it means to be excited about the clean slate once the season starts, and a big part of that is teams are signing people and trading people. But the front office approach by Major League Baseball teams now has not only taken that away, but turned that into an active source of acrimony on the part of the fans. Talk to Indians fans or Braves fans –– teams that are contenders that should be improving to get up to the level of the Red Sox, Astros or Yankees, but they’re not doing it –– so fans are mad. They’re angry. They have turned the best free marketing that baseball has all year into a negative thing. Only Major League Baseball could do that.”

Some, such as Sports Illustrated’s Tom Verducci, have suggested Manny Machado’s $300 million contract with the Padres, which was signed this week, proves free agency isn’t broken. “Later is the new normal,” Verducci writes. “It reduces emotion and an auction atmosphere from huge investments and complicated terms.”

That might be true for Machado and Harper, who will undoubtedly get paid soon, but it ignores the middle class. As ESPN’s Jeff Passan notes, 60 percent of teams feature payrolls $50 million below the luxury tax threshold and eight clubs are more than $100 million under it. Even as MLB’s annual revenue skyrockets past $10 billion, owners are spending less money on players. That bleak reality is what leads Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright to threaten a midseason strike, even though the CBA doesn’t expire for another two years.

“To suggest an elite player getting the market free agent deal he was supposed to get is evidence all of that stuff is gone is ridiculous,” Calcaterra said to WEEI.com. “It’s no more proof the free agent market is fixed than Tom Verducci’s salary as a writer is proof the media labor market is healthy. I’m glad he does well, but almost everyone else in sports media isn’t doing well, so it’s the same thing.”

The Red Sox are one of the few teams that does spend, and they should be lauded for that, but chairman Tom Werner still spreads baseball’s disingenuous defense of shrinking payrolls. On “Mut & Callahan” this week, Werner said he thinks teams can still win without spending, pointing to the success of the low-budget A’s and Rays. The anecdotal argument ignores the fact there is a direct link between spending money and sustained success. The A’s and Rays are anomalies.

Above all else, bringing in big-time players generates buzz, which baseball sorely lacks. The Athletic’s Jayson Stark recently studied the attendance impact of the eight biggest position-player signings of the 2000s –– leaving out the always popular Yankees, Dodgers, Red Sox, Cubs, Cardinals and Angels –– and found they increased attendance by 16.7-percent on average for teams the following season. 

Last year, MLB attendance dropped to below 70 million for the first time in 15 seasons.

The Padres signing Machado in late February isn’t the same as courting him at the Winter Meetings and coming away as the victor of a highly publicized bidding war. When Harper eventually signs, everybody will be annoyed it took so long. The rush is gone. 

In three weeks, the NFL will once again take over the sports world when its free agency begins. For a 48-hour period, there will be a blitzkrieg of news, with Adam Schefter and Ian Rapoport becoming ubiquitous presences on TV screens in sports bars across this great nation.

Meanwhile, ESPN has cut nightly editions of “Baseball Tonight,” relegating the iconic show to miniature “SportsCenter” segments. Given the lack of news this offseason, they don’t need much more time than that.

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NESN nails Red Sox booth: NESN has been pilloried in recent years for some of its programming decisions, most notably removing Don Orsillo from Red Sox telecasts. But the Sox-owned network did an outstanding job forming its booth this season, which will feature Dennis Eckerlsey for 85 games. For 30 of those dates, Eckersley will join Dave O’Brien and Jerry Remy in a three-man booth.

Eckersley is a star and could surely be one of baseball’s national voices if he wanted to give up his life for broadcasting. Fortunately for us, it seems like Eckersley is content where he is.

The Red Sox may have the best booth in baseball this season, with the O’Brien-Remy-Eckersley trio rivaling the beloved Mets’ crew of Gary Cohn, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez on SNY. 

Celtics ratings double-standard: This week, we learned Celtics ratings are down 27-percent this season. That is pretty big news, considering the C’s essentially added Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward to a group that went to Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals last season. 

But the topic failed to gain much traction, outside of the Chris Curtis-run “Mut & Callahan” Twitter account. It points to the double-standard surrounding how we critique ratings. Red Sox TV numbers are closely scrutinized, with everyone looking for additional data to back up the “baseball is dying” narrative. If they suffer a nearly 30-percent drop this season, you can guarantee it will be a major topic on talk radio all summer long.

But the truth is, the Red Sox doubled the Celtics in ratings last year. The NBA might be the most-tweeted-about sports league in the country, but its national ratings are down 18-percent on TNT. Professional basketball’s omnipresence on social media masks some of its shortcomings.

Moratorium on Colin Kaepernick talk: As sports talk radio hosts, it is time for us to come together and put a moratorium on Kaepernick talk until he signs somewhere –– or at least is seriously linked to an NFL team. We’ve been having the same conversation for 2.5 years. He wrangled millions of dollars from the NFL, proving he was blackballed from the league for his social justice advocacy. Time to move on. 

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