The free agent market is broken

Otto Greule Jr

It's February 26 and live baseball is being played. Yet somehow, three premier free agents in Kendrys Morales, Stephen Drew, and Ervin Santana remain jobless. As we look back at the recent history, this is unprecedented. What's causing this and is there any fix?

It's the end of February. Spring training games are currently being played. And yet, Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew, and Kendrys Morales remain unsigned. It's not like these are the scrubs and dregs, looking for non-roster invites, these are some of the premier free agents still looking for work. Ervin Santana is fresh off a 200 inning season, arguably the best of his career. Stephen Drew plays a steady shortstop and has a modicum of power. Kendrys Morales can smash baseballs out of the park, something that, were you to give me a tennis ball and a Mike Piazza Power Bat, I still wouldn't manage.

Not that these players don't have their flaws, Santana has rocketed between good and horrifyingly bad seasons; Drew struggles to remain on the field for a full season, and Morales treats fielding as if it were against his religion.

But it's not the flaws keeping the players unsigned, it's the current state of the market, these players who could improve any number of teams in 2014 remaining untethered and unemployed because they would cost the team that signed them a draft pick. And it's all thanks to the current Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Last offseason was the first time under the new arrangement, teams given the chance to offer their departing free agents a "qualifying offer," equal to the average salary of the top 125 players in the game. Should the player turn it down and sign with a new team, the signing team would lose their draft pick (if it wasn't protected as one of the first 11 in the draft.) The team losing the player would then get a compensatory draft pick at the end of the first round.

While that is similar to the old method when there were Type A and B free agents, one big addition has made teams, already quite covetous of their draft picks, even more so: the draft pool.

In the past, drafting was the Wild West (as far as a heavily controlled, limited free market could be). Teams could spend as much as they want for whomever they wanted. A high schooler with big draft demands dropped to the second round? If you wanted to sign him for $50 million, you had every right. Most didn't since a) that would be absurd and b) no one wanted to rock the boat.

Now, the pool is limited, the higher your first round draft pick, the larger pool of money you can spend in the entire draft. And should you fail to sign that first round pick, well, you end up forfeiting most of that money.

Last year, the first under the new system, Michael Bourn, coming off a 6.2 WAR season with the Braves, waited until February 15th to sign. Kyle Lohse, coming of a 16-3, 2.84 ERA season in 2012, went unsigned until March 25th when he inked a two year deal with the Brewers. You could argue that this is simply the result of baseball teams getting smarter, of realizing which types of seasons were a mirage, a hot year coming at the right time. But that doesn't seem right, especially when you look at the $75 million that BJ Upton pulled down.

It's also something that never happened under the old system. From 2008 through 2012, the latest a 'major' free agent signed during the offseason (I suppose this could be subjective, I mean, you could be Robinson Cancel's friend and find all of his signings 'major') was Prince Fielder's deal with the Tigers on January 26th, 2011. Before that, it was Mark Teixeira's eight year pact with the Yankees, inked on January 6th, 2009. Compare that to this year when we are late into February, exhibition games under way, and multiple players remain on the market.

There are already reports coming out that the remaining free agents are willing to wait until after the June draft to sign, when their value is no longer tied up with a draft pick. While that may very well be sports agent posturing, the fact is that the system is currently broken. Though no one is throwing around the word "collusion" just yet, there is a frightening level of hive-minded risk averseness among major league teams. Despite record revenues funneling into the game, no one dares to be on the losing end of one of these free agent signings should they go wrong.

And with teams seemingly in agreement as to the value of a draft pick, the market has ground to a halt. The players won't accept below market deals, both for themselves, but also for the strength of the union, the knowledge that eventually a team will have to step forward to sign them for their value at some point, whether that's now or in June. That doesn't speak well of the 'health' of the game.

The current CBA punishes these players for being good enough to warrant a qualifying offer; it punishes successful teams from being able to sign the strongest amateur talent; and it hurts the product on the field, whether it's this next season or a decade down the line when the best amateur athletes turn to other sports in hopes of getting a larger pay day.

Really, the only winner is ownership, which, well, that explains a lot. Despite a record $8 billion in revenue flowing in last year and a massive TV deal kicking in this year, somehow the game needed these controls on player salaries to ensure they wouldn't devour all of these profits.

At some point, Ervin Santana, Stephen Drew, and Kendrys Morales will sign, and chances are they will get something close to what they were looking for. Someone will be desperate enough, perhaps a player goes with an injury during the spring or a prospect proves himself not ready.

But that doesn't mean the system can't improve. Should there be more off seasons like this over the next two years, it will be interesting to see how the next labor agreement plays out when the two sides sit down in 2016, the compensation picks surely on the table.


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