Tomase: NFL's buzzworthy free agency a reminder that baseball is broken off the field, too

John Tomase
March 13, 2019 - 11:07 am
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NBA free agency opened on July 1 and the fireworks started immediately.

LeBron joined the Lakers! Chris Paul stayed in Houston! Paul George committed to the Thunder! Dallas landed DeAndre Jordan!

NFL free agency opened on Monday amidst a frenzy of activity.

The Super Bowl champs lost Trey Flowers and Trent Brown! The Raiders acquired disgruntled wideout Antonio Brown! Holy !&!^$!, Odell Beckham is headed to Cleveland?!?

Baseball free agency launched on Nov. 3 and oh my God stop this thrill ride, I wanna get off.

The Washington Nationals signed former Cardinals closer Trevor Rosenthal, who hadn't pitched in over a year because of Tommy John surgery! And . . .

And . . .

And . . .

Oh, that was it.

As we ponder the national pastime's slide into the past tense, let us add Exhibit Zzz: the offseason.

While the NBA and NFL have transformed their player-movement windows into compelling theater meriting wall-to-wall coverage -- making them an extension of their respective seasons -- baseball lumbers through the winter like the world's most forlorn encyclopedia salesman.

The sport even managed to screw up the apocalypse. That's how many of us spent three years characterizing the 2018-19 offseason, when superstars Bryce Harper and Manny Machado would hit the market in their primes and spark a bidding war that ignited passions from coast to coast.

Instead, neither player received a buzzworthy offer until spring training, when Machado belatedly signed with the Padres, Harper joined the Phillies, and the rest of us wondered why we had cared so much in the first place.

Baseball's heavy hitters -- the Yankees, Dodgers, and Red Sox -- largely idled. We were instead subjected to ridiculous bidders like the White Sox and Padres until, oh wait, Machado actually chose San Diego. Harper, a former MVP, didn't even receive a legit offer between the 10 years and $300 million the Nationals proposed in October and the flurry of action that led him to Philly this month.

I can already hear the pedants preparing their lectures on the systemic differences between capped leagues like the NFL and slotted ones like the NBA. NFL players need to sign quickly before their piece of the pie disappears. NBA superstars know exactly what they can make on July 1 years in advance, effectively removing money from their decision.

There's no limit to baseball salaries, which is why the offseason plays out like a middle school dance. It's patently absurd, for instance, that a bunch of interchangeable middle relievers wait for someone to make the first move, thereby setting the market and unleashing a torrent of Joe Kelly, David Robertson, and Kelvin Herrera signings.

In the old days, before super agents refused to sign until the last minute and teams infused every decision with analytics that favor young over old, clubs acted quickly and not always rationally.

It's amazing to think that Alex Rodriguez signed his landmark 10-year, $252 million contract in 2000 with the Rangers on Dec. 11. That's roughly three full months before J.D. Martinez agreed to the five-year, $110 million contract the Red Sox had left on the table for him all offseason a year ago.

With All-Stars like Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel still unemployed, what can baseball do to break this damaging perception of inertia that already afflicts the on-field product? That's easy. Follow the advice of Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski and create an offseason signing deadline. Force teams to finalize free-agent decisions by Dec. 31. Restore what used to be the greatest offseason in sports -- we call it the Hot Stove for a reason -- to its rightful place as a driver of debate, discussion, and intrigue.

Baseball keeps screwing up the game on the field with its refusal to institute necessary innovations like the pitch clock. Now it's losing the offseason arms race, too, and neither the owners nor the players can see beyond their own self-interests to act.

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