Patrick Creighton: The Astros success has helped create MLB’s free agency problem

Patrick Creighton: The Astros success has helped create MLB’s free agency problem
Alex Bregman and Carlos Correa were high draft picks for the Astros. Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

As tensions continue to rise between the MLBPA and MLB regarding how slow the free agent market is evolving, the idea of collusion is simmering beneath the surface and ready to boil over.  This is a historically slow free agency signing period at a time when league revenues and team values are the highest they have ever been.  

So what gives?  After losing three collusion cases, owners aren’t really stupid enough to do it again, are they?

While collusion may be the sexy word to throw around in headlines, when you peel back the onion, here’s what you really find:

The Astros.

The success of the Houston Astros in tearing the team down to nothing, rebuilding through the draft, and centering the team around a core of young, strong players that would be supplemented by some free agents/trades has become the new model in baseball.  While its always existed as a model, it’s now becoming the preferred model, which had not been the case among the best teams previously.

With the Astros’ success, more teams (particularly those with younger front offices) are placing more value on their draft picks than ever before.  History has shown us that long term contracts (5+ years & 9 figures) rarely pan out, and to give up a draft pick and pay that kind of money for free agents who require compensation is just more than many of today’s younger, more analytically driven front offices are willing to pay.  

Owners, of course, love the idea of spending less.  They are also seeing the fruits of their stingy GM’s labors.  Prices are coming down.  Call it “Modern Moneyball.”

As the Miami Marlins break down their roster and slash payroll, its very clear that they are copying the Astros model.  The Marlins have low attendance, they are a bad team, and their minor league system is bereft of talent.  They legitimately need to start over at every level, similar to how the Astros did when Jim Crane purchased the team.

When MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred was asked about the Marlins payroll slashing on a prominent national show, Manfred let it rip – this is how teams build their rosters the smart way.  He made a point that the teams who drafted 1-5 in the 2013 MLB draft (based on worst records from 2012) were all in the playoffs in 2017, while the two World Series participants from 2012 (Giants & Tigers) finished tied for the worst record in baseball in 2017.  It’s a cyclical game.

Teams have learned from experience that trying to build a winner through free agency alone gives you a risky, short term window with long term financial repercussions.  The back ends of those long terms deals are almost always losers.

Consider how many teams give out big money to players just to do their best to trade them (often for little in return) to free themselves of the financial burden.  Giancarlo Stanton was just the latest incarnation of this.

Albert Pujols, Adrian Gonzalez, Vernon Wells, Jayson Werth, Barry Zito, Carl Crawford, Alex Rodriguez, Ryan Howard…all just the tip of the iceberg of long term deals gone bad.

Teams have to be able to learn from their mistakes, right?

While many of the bigger names in free agency this offseason like Yu Darvish, Jake Arrieta, J.D. Martinez ,etc are still looking for deals just a week before Spring Training, teams have spent pretty good money on relief pitchers.

Wade Davis got 3yrs/$52M from the Cubs, but at least he’s a closer for that coin.  Pat Neshek got  2/$16.25M with the Phillies.  Juan Nicasio 2/$17M from the Mariners. Anthony Swarzak 2/$14M from the Mets.  Brandon Morrow 2/$21M from the Cubs to be a setup guy.  The Phillies gave Tommy Hunter two years and $18M.  Those are shorter term deals but big money for a lot of middle relievers.

Front offices have identified relief pitching as a valuable asset but have decided to pay more over shorter periods of time to acquire it.

Even teams that used to spend like drunken sailors on shore leave – Yankees, Dodgers, Giants, Red Sox –  have shifted to a more financially viable model and those teams basically print money.  They just don’t want to continue throwing it away on aging players and luxury tax.

The importance of draft picks, particularly when teams are successful, has become paramount as the Astros have most recently demonstrated how to go from worst to champs through the draft, and sports leagues are copycats.  Once a team unlocks a successful formula, others try to emulate it.  Three of the Astros core young players were first round picks in George Springer, Carlos Correa, and Alex Bregman.  Kyle Tucker, another first round pick, is a player the team believes can be a corner OF for a decade or more. Pitcher Forrest Whitley, their 2016 first round pick, is considered untouchable.

Having all those high quality, extremely productive, and most importantly, cheap players gives the team the ability to spend wisely where it needs help (RPs Joe Smith & Hector Rondon) and make deals for others (SPs Justin Verlander, Gerrit Cole).

While it is highly unusual for 94 free agents to be available this late into February, the idea that “the market always goes up” is a fallacy.  Over the long term, yes, but on a year to year basis, there are ebbs and flows.  It happens in every aspect of business.  Whether its stocks, real estate, oil and gas, automotive, whatever, the gravy train doesn’t steam forward unencumbered every year.

Watching the success of the Astros this season has changed GM’s ideas of how to build teams.  Much like the NBA, we are now seeing teams that are playing for draft pick position vs playing to win.  Signing expensive free agents to very long term deals compromises long term flexibility, and has a proven poor return in the end.  

Sorry Scott Boras, the Astros plan is going to be copied for several years now.  Agents and players are going to have to adjust to the new market.


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