New Season, Same Question: Why Are MLB Superstars Unsigned in February?

The first MLB Spring Training game of 2019 is less than a week away, MLB Opening Day is just over a month away, and yet a handful of MLB superstar free agents remain unsigned. Thus is life in an offseason for current Major League Baseball free agents. In 2018, the list of unsigned stars included J.D. Martinez, who did not sign with the Boston Red Sox until February 19th, yet went on to lead the American League in RBIs, win a Silver Slugger Award for two different positions, and win the American League’s Hank Aaron Award, which is given to the player voted to be the best offensive performer in their respective league. Here we are in 2019, and now that list includes 2015 National League MVP Bryce Harper, 2015 American League Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel, and perennial MLB All Star Manny Machado.

While there are reports that Harper may have a suitor, this does very little to silence those who have spoken out against MLB owners’ approach to free agency the past few offseasons. Houston Astros star pitcher Justin Verlander called MLB free agency “broken”, and called “bs” on teams allegedly hiding behind the guise of a rebuild as explanations for not signing star players.

Additionally, St. Louis Cardinals pitcher Adam Wainwright more than suggested a bigger problem could be looming if free agents remain unsigned in the fashion that has been seen over the past two offseasons. Wainwright, on an appearance on InsideStl.com’s “The Morning After Podcast”, declared his belief that “Unless something changes, there’s going to be a strike. 100 percent.” Wainwright added that he was worried about an in-season strike, and went on to scrutinize MLB owners, stating “Thirty owners need to be answering that (question) because you have one of the best players in the game that needs a job and no one is signing him” and “You have to realize that this is about winning…(Bryce Harper) is going to be a dynamic player. The same can be said about Manny Machado. These guys are superstar players.”

What Is Causing Free Agents to Remain Unsigned?

It is easy to cherry pick bad contracts around the league to rationalize why teams may be less inclined to give out big money, long-term contracts in 2019 and beyond. MLB contracts are fully guaranteed when a player signs it via free agency or as a result of an extension before the player reaches free agency. This means, for example, the New York Yankees will continue to pay Jacoby Ellsbury approximately $21 million dollars a year until 2021, even though he did not play in 2018, unless some sort of settlement is reached. This also means that the Baltimore Orioles will continue to pay Chris Davis $92 million dollars over the next four seasons, even though his batting average over the past two seasons is .192.

The point is that, in theory, fans can see why the owners may be leery to hand these players large contracts that are guaranteed in full for the entire term and amount. However, there have been lingering suggestions of collusion going back to last offseason among those covering Major league Baseball, including Ken Rosenthall of The Athletic. In January of 2018, Rosenthall noted that “Some agents are keeping notes on their conversations with clubs this offseason in preparation for a possible collusion grievance.” He continued by conceding that it would be a tall task at that point, and stating that it may not be collusion at all, “clubs might simply be getting smarter” in their pursuit of and negotiation with MLB free agents.

Collusion in Major League Baseball?

Unfortunately, collusion is not a word that Major League Baseball is unfamiliar with. In 1976, Major League Baseball added Article XX, Section E to the MLB CBA, which came to be known as the “Collusion Clause”. This clause states simply that “Players shall not act in concert with other Players and Clubs shall not act in concert with other Clubs”. With the decision final in Kansas City Royals Baseball Corp. v. Major League Baseball Players Association, which resulted in true free agency in the MLB for the first time in league history, this Collusion Clause sought to “set basic ground rules” for the new process by which players joined new teams.

However, it was less than ten years after the decision in Kansas City that the free agent market began to change in a negative way. After seeing a steady increase in player salaries between 1976 and 1984, the free agent market suddenly dried up in 1985, following the ratification of a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. This resulted in three collusion grievances being filed against MLB owners, alleging that the owners acted in concert to boycott free agents prior to the 1985, 1986, and 1988 seasons. The grievances were resolved in favor of the players, resulting in the Major League teams settling to pay $280 million dollars to the Players Association, and the Players Association agreeing “not to file a grievance for any collusion claims that may have emerged during the 1989-90 off-season.” Furthermore, MLB team owners paid an additional $12 million dollars to the players in 2006 when it was proven that then-Commissioner Bud Selig, who was a team owner during the 1980s period of collusion, was improperly advising teams on free agent signings during the offseason of 2002 to 2003.

Outlook for the Remainder of the 2019 MLB Offseason, and Future Free Agency Periods

By and large, it is unlikely that MLB fans see collusion grievances filed any time soon. Teams have plenty of excuses for why the free agency period has changed over the last few seasons, and as Ken Rosenthall stated, teams may simply be getting more judicious with their resources to avoid bad situations. Additionally, it is not like players are not getting contracts at all. Just this week, Luis Severino, Aaron Nola, Max Kepler, and Jorge Polanco signed contract extensions with their current teams. While they are not anywhere near the mega-deals Bryce Harper and Manny Machado are projected to sign when they finally put pen to paper, they are still long term contracts with a competitive total value. The players at this point will likely not have the proof necessary to win a collusion grievance like the league has seen in decades past. However, star pitcher Jacob deGrom and consensus best-player-in-baseball Mike Trout are free agents in 2020. Perhaps the contract offers, and the urgency with which the contracts are offered and signed by those players, could tip the scale in one direction or another. Or is there potentially another argument to be made that Mike Trout’s availability in 2020 is playing a role in some team’s reluctancy to hand out contracts worth hundreds of millions of dollars in 2019? We may not have all the answers right away, but with most teams already participating in full-squad workouts, it is reasonable to believe that these big name free agents will soon have teams.

Photo Courtesy: Keith Allison/Wikimedia Commons

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