MLB Free Agency is Broken and it Should be Easy to Fix

Why the Red Sox traded Mookie Betts has been subject to some debate. Was it to save money? Was it because Betts didn’t want to re-sign in Boston? Was it because they didn’t want to pay Mookie Betts what it would cost to keep him? Regardless of what their reasoning was, it highlights one of baseball’s biggest issues: free agency.

There is so much wrong with MLB free agency, but the one that gets talked about the most is more of a symptom than a problem in and of itself. Free agency takes too long. Players and teams have essentially created the habit of getting into a two-month standoff until someone finally caves and gives into the other sides financial demands just before the start of spring training. It drags out for a clownishly lengthy amount of time, but that’s just scratching the surface. The MLB’s issues with free agency go much deeper.

Perhaps the biggest problem with MLB free agency is the length of these contracts. If the Red Sox didn’t want to sign Mookie Betts to a 12-year deal, could you really blame them? These contracts that go on for 8 years, 9 years, 10 years and beyond are killing teams. The Tigers and Angles signed Miguel Cabrera and Albert Pujols to 8 and 10 year contracts in December of 2011 and March of 2014, respectively. Since they each signed those contracts, those teams have combined to make the playoffs twice in fourteen seasons. There’s a problem there.

When both of those players signed those contracts, they were worth it. You could argue that both were “the best player in baseball” in 2011 for Pujols and 2014 for Cabrera. Cabrera was one season removed from winning the triple crown, the first player to do so since Carl Yastrzemski in 1967. Albert Pujols was coming off a season in which he led the St. Louis Cardinals to a World Series championship and had finished top-5 in MVP voting in 10 of his previous 11 MLB seasons. They both deserved to be paid at the top of the market, but 6 years later, that was no longer true.

Albert Pujols stats before signing with the Angels: .328 BA, .617 SLG, 1.037 OPS, 40 HR per year, 121 RBI per year

Albert Pujols stats after signing with the Angels:.258 BA, ..450 SLG, .764 OPS, 26 HR per year, 93 RBI per year

Miguel Cabrera before signing extension:

Miguel Cabrara after signing extension:

Giving out these huge deals to top players in free agent is resulting in wins and teams know it. That’s what leads to these stalemates in free agency. The Nationals let their division rivals sign Bryce Harper to one of those monster deals and won the World Series the following season. Even the best players in the sport aren’t worth signing to these massive contracts.

‪Highest paid hitters by position in the MLB:‬

‪C: Buster Posey‬
‪1B: Miguel Cabrera‬
‪2B: Robinson Cano‬
‪SS: Elvis Andrus‬
‪3B: Nolan Arenado‬
‪OF: Mike Trout‬
‪OF: Bryce Harper‬
‪OF: Yoenis Cespedes‬
‪DH: Albert Pujols‬

(‪Only one of those players has won a championship since signing their current contract.)

The other problem is how long these players have to wait to hit free agency. The system is a complete joke and MLB teams have been manipulating it for years. A player has to accrue 6 years of Major League service time before hitting free agency and must spend 172 days on the official major league roster (or on the injured list) to get that year of service time. Knowing this, MLB clubs have left MLB-ready players in the minors for just long enough so they won’t get a year of major league service time before calling them up for the rest of the season. That way, they’ll have to wait another year before being eligible for free agency. If you make it through all that baseball without getting significantly injured or failing to produce at a high-level every year, you can finally get paid.

The most popular case of this practice was in 2015 when the Cubs left star youngster Kris Bryant in the minors just long enough so that when they called him up, it would be impossible for him to reach the required 172 days for a year of service time. A grevicence Kris Bryant filed against the Cubs for this misdeed was just recently denied, nearly 5 years after the fact, after an arbitrator ruled that the Cubs did not manipulate the system. A ruling that is a joke and a disgrace to the fabric of baseball and basic human rights. Now, the Cubs are reportedly exploring the possibility of trading Bryant to avoid having to shell out what’s sure to be a long-term deal for the former Rookie of the Year and MVP who will turn 30 in January of 2021, the offseason of his free agency.

What both of those issues lead the MLB to is a case of mutually assured destruction. MLB players won’t hit free agency until they’re in their late 20s (or early 30s for some) and teams are forced to pay players aging out of their prime 10-year contracts that will cripple them long-term. Both sides would benefit from allowing players to hit free agency earlier and limiting how long these contracts can be.

The perfect scenario is this: Players hit free agency 5 years after they play their first minor league game. Whether you want to keep them in the minors or play them in the majors during that time is your own decision, but MLB teams shouldn’t get to arbitrarily decide when their player’s free agency clock starts. If some players take a little longer to develop then others, tough. That’s no reason to be able to hold onto a player’s rights for a longer period of time. On the flip side, these free agent contracts should be limited to a maximum of 6 years. It’s still longer than the maximum contract length in most sports, but would help limit the damage caused by having Albert Pujols making $30 million at age 40 when that money should be going to someone who’s currently a superior player.

Will this happen? No. The MLB is clearly afraid of change and the players and owners hate each other too much to come to any agreement that would help the game. The players want the money. The owners want the control. So, both sides will continue on their path to mutually assured destruction. This is just one of many issues within the game of baseball that is causing the game’s popularity to plummet. When teams start deciding that signing the best players in the sport isn’t worth it, there’s a fundamental problem with the system. If the MLB doesn’t recognize that and fix it, the problem is just going to continue to get worse and baseball will continue its downward spiral.

​Photo: (Gerald Herbert – AP Photo)

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