The Sunday Baseball Column: Why can't free agency be fun anymore? That's what players like Mitch Moreland want to know

Rob Bradford
September 22, 2019 - 6:41 am
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Mitch Moreland summed up the stark reality of what most likely awaits.

“The way free agency has become it’s not fun anymore,” the Red Sox first baseman said.

It’s hard to argue.

It’s the reason you’re seeing the trend of elite players signing contract extensions come back into vogue, with others doing whatever they can to get some sort of certainty heading into those years of free agent eligibility. But some don’t have the kind of choices free agents used to enjoy, such as players like Moreland, who will become a free agent for the third time in the last four offseasons this winter.

“It seemed like when people were getting deals it was fun,” he said. “I think I missed it by about a year. Stuff is valued differently now.”

It was a dynamic that Moreland first experienced when finishing off his 2016 season with the Rangers, leading to a one-year deal with the Red Sox. That was followed up by the current two-year, $13 million contract he is riding out. 

“As far as phone calls went, I had a ton of phone calls from other teams and I think Boston was the last team I actually heard from but they were the first team to come in and be serious, make offers and that kind of stuff. Obviously, I loved it here and wanted to be a part of it,” said Moreland regarding his last foray into free agency. 

“I wasn’t really worried about the waiting around part. The first time around I had offers for probably better money but I wanted to play here. I was excited about that opportunity. I’m at the point now to where am I going to enjoy it the most and where is my family going to enjoy it? We’ll worry about the rest later."

But ...

"It’s kind of tough to have priorities with the way the market has been the last couple of years," he lamented.

But now free agents such as Moreland — who just turned 34 years old — have seen their options dwindling. And that is a landscape that doesn’t figure to be turning in their favor this coming offseason.

The days of bidding wars for any level of players are seemingly a thing of the past, at least until the next collective bargaining agreement. Remember these comments from J.D. Martinez to WEEI.com back in spring training after a second-straight offseason where players were left waiting for deals that often times never came …

"I knew it was. Why wouldn't it? They got away with it last year, why wouldn't they do it again? What's going to happen? Nothing," Martinez said. "It's embarrassing for baseball, it really is. It's really embarrassing for the game. You have a business. They say, 'The market is down, the market is changing.' The market is higher than it's ever been. People are making more money than ever, and they're trying to suppress it. It's more of a race towards the bottom now than a race towards the top. You can go right now through everyone's lineup and you already know who's going to be in the playoffs. What's the fun in that? We might as well just fast-forward to the end of the season."

That brings us back to Moreland.

A strong case could be made that despite the injury woes that to 86 games heading into Sunday he would be a good fit going forward. The Red Sox have a trio of young, right-handed-hitting first base options (Michael Chavis, Bobby Dalbec and Sam Travis), who would seemingly be complemented perfectly by the likes of Moreland.

But the guy who made the two previous decisions on Moreland inking with the Red Sox, Dave Dombrowski, is gone, leaving the first baseman -- along with fellow free agents-to-be Brock Holt and Rick Porcello -- with even more unknowns and potential uneasiness than anticipated.
 
"There is a lot of uncertainty in it," Moreland said. "In the end I’ve been fortunate. I’ve played on some great teams throughout my career and I’ve been able to do it for a while. I’m looking forward to it. Looking forward to seeing what it brings and playing again. Would I like to be back here? Absolutely. It’s a great place. Great place to play baseball. Great fan base. Obviously, the year hasn’t gone the way we wanted but the future is bright. That part of it I’m definitely excited for and I’ve been happy to be part of it the last few years."

MAYBE J.D. MARTINEZ HAS A MARKET, AFTER ALL

Most in baseball seem to be of the same mind when it comes to deciphering whether or not Martinez will opt-out of his contract after this season: Who will give him a better deal that what he already has in his pocket?

The outfielder's defensive limitations -- which have been highlighted in recent weeks -- would seem to take National League teams out of the equation. That leaves the 32-year-old with whatever American League clubs might be in the market for a designated hitter valuable enough to pay more than the $64 million he has coming to him over the next three seasons with his current deal.

But there might be one team that is lining up to offer Martinez the temptation to opt-out: the White Sox.

This is a team that is flush with the kid of young hitters Martinez can influence both on and off the field in a positive way. It clearly has the money to make a splash in the free agent market (as was evident by their pursuits of Manny Machado and Bryce Harper last offseason). And Chicago undeniably has a hole at designated hitter, a spot it had the worst production at (.607 OPS) of any team in the American League.

The best fit? All things considered, it's still the Red Sox.

CAN YOU IMAGINE EDUARDO RODRIGUEZ WITH THE ASTROS?

We know what Rodriguez has become, which -- as we sit here -- is the Red Sox' ace. His presence is a testament to Ben Cherington's maneuvering at the 2014 non-waiver trade deadline when he wrestled the then-minor-leaguer from the Orioles in exchange for Andrew Miller, outbidding Dombrowski's Tigers.

But the Red Sox and Tigers weren't the first to make a hard push at Rodriguez.

According to a major league source, the year before Rodriguez became a Red Sox Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow went hard after the lefty. Houston, however, was told by then-Orioles GM Dan Duquette he was unavailable. It was another early example that Houston had a pretty good idea what they were doing.

XANDER BOGAERTS IS READY TO ADJUST HIT GOALS

Bogaerts has a good chance at landing in the Top 10 in MVP balloting, which would be a first for the shortstop. It is a new existence that has him rethinking 2020.

"Coming into this year for sure it wasn’t," Bogaerts said when asked if MVP was ever a goal for 2019. "Maybe when you start getting better and better and better. Once you see yourself getting better maybe it becomes a possibility and you try and get it. Next year my mindset will be different and I’ll have higher expectations."

Then there is the reality of overtaking the guy who rolls out of bed at the end of March and lands with that season's MVP, Mike Trout.

"That’s kind of hard," said Bogaerts of somehow surpassing the likes of Trout. "We’ll see."

Believe it or not, Bogaerts fell well short of one of his main goals for this season - stealing more bases.

Despite showing better "sprint speed" than any other season in his career, Bogaerts in target to finish with his fewest number of stolen bases since 2014, heading into Sunday with just four in six attempts.

He has an explanation ...

"I think where I’m hitting is a little bit tougher," Bogaerts said. "Sometimes I’m hitting in front of J.D. or hitting in front of (Rafael) Devers. It’s kind of harder to run into an out knowing those guys can hit a double or J.D. hits one out of the park and I can score. If I was fifth maybe a little more.

"I have to be a little smarter and a little more for the team and not as selfish. Maybe if you’re hitting fifth the third or fourth hitter has already hit so maybe you can create something for the other guys. It’s hard, man. It’s hard.

"The other day I almost had one. I had an easy stolen base against Toronto. Devers had two strikes and I didn’t want to go when someone goes with two strikes and I hear, ‘He’s running!’ I don’t like that. I don’t want to do something to others that I don’t like. I do. I feel stronger. I should be able to get more, but it’s just the position. It sounds good but when you get in the middle of it it’s different."

RYAN WEBER HAS A DOOZY OF A FAN STORY

The Red Sox pitcher brought up an interesting comparison the other day: Watching NASCAR and baseball.

"It’s kind of the same," Weber said. "Obviously there’s the first lap and then in the middle — like the middle of the game or the middle of a race — it gets repetitive. It’s a lot like baseball. It’s an individual sport but they have a team behind them. There’s one guy out there doing it but he’s counting on other people, like baseball. It’s long. It’s going to take three hours. And there are obviously some heightened moments.

"What might set it apart is the noise, and the atmosphere. The fans are the best fans, I believe, in any sport. Everyone is friendly. You can bring in whatever you want to bring into the race and everyone shares everything. Security is nice. Concessions are nice, reasonable prices. Everyone has a good seat."

Weber knows of what he speaks. He has lived the life of NASCAR fan, having attended 10 events since first getting an invitation to the Daytona 500 at the age of 22. 

More proof? Get your arms around his favorite story from attending a NASCAR event:

"It was Daytona 500 in 2014, pre-race. Probably 30 minutes until start. We’re up probably 10 roads from the top, good seat, Turn 4. I’m putting sunscreen on, getting ready, locking in, already had a few cocktails in me pre-race. I hear a voice behind me, ‘Hey, can I get that when you’re done.’ I kind of give a half-turn, don’t make eye-contact but say, ‘Sure, no problem.’ So I’m done, get out of my seat, start walking back, trying to picture who had said because nobody is really looking at me who I would think would want this sunscreen. Then I lock eyes on this guy, probably mid-60’s, there solo by himself. Leather skin. Skin of an alligator. I further investigate and I see this man has no arms. We lock eyes even more and he’s not with anyone, so I’m looking around. OK, this guy is in a bit of a pickle so I lather him up with sunscreen and that was that and that’s just classic NASCAR because someone would do that for me if I was incoherent and needed to put sunscreen on."

THE EDUCATION OF BOBBY DALBEC

Bobby Dalbec had already made his presence felt with the Red Sox' big league coaching staff. That's why he survived until the very last cuts of spring training.

But even after 1 1/2 months in Fort Myers, and then a minor-league season which saw the 24-year-old hit a combined 27 home runs between Double- and Triple-A, the most impactful impression may have come courtesy Dalbec's week or so visit at Fenway Park earlier this month.

"We got to spend so much time on him, one-on-one time," said Red Sox assistant hitting coach Andy Barkett. "He’s a really smart kid and communicates really well so in that time you’re able to go back and forth and talk through things. The adjustments he made while he made when he was here was really cool. Tim, him and I started a texting thread and so we’re going to keep in touch throughout as he prepares for the Premier 12. But I thought it was huge.

"These were like private lessons every day. It was a week’s worth of Bobby Dalbec and us. Spring training it’s transient. You have one guy in and one guy out. This was complete focus and we were able to prepare for it before he got here."

And while many had hoped Dalbec's existence in Sept. would be participating in real major league games instead of partaking private lessons preparation for an international tournament in Nov., this ultimately might have been the best path to prepare him for his shot at the big leagues next season.

"Move to the ball. His connection with his lower half. His path. These are all things we worked on," Barkett said. "He cleaned all of that up during that time. He had done it during the season but I think he took it to another level of understanding and application. It was good."

RYAN BRASIER FINALLY FACES OFF WITH HIS DOPPELGANGER

When Brasier took the mound at Fenway Park Sept. 17, he found himself in a unique situation. The Red Sox reliever was suddenly staring in the mirror (or that was at least how some viewed it).

For the first time in the major leagues, Brasier was squaring off with the player so many had confused him with throughout the pitcher's professional career, Stephen Vogt.

"You know it's funny because right before I signed with the A's somebody said, 'Man, you really look like Stephen Vogt.' I had played against him in the minor leagues and stuff and never really thought about it," Brasier said. "But when we played with each other everybody started saying it. And then every year since then, especially guys who had played with him, they say, 'Dude, you look exactly like Vogt.' He was just would be like, 'What's up brother?'"