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OC Register: Hoornstra: Why MLB free agency might be broken, even after this week’s frenzy

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In professional sports, every labor stoppage needs a “why.” For example: why aren’t there any games this season. In the case of Major League Baseball, why aren’t teams allowed to trade or sign major league players indefinitely?

The more appropriate question, from April 2, 1995 until 8:59 p.m. PT on Wednesday, was why not? That’s how long the players and owners were content to abide by the terms of a Collective Bargaining Agreement and negotiate another without interrupting a season. Now, after the two sides met Wednesday in Dallas without reaching an agreement on a new CBA, a lockout is expected to commence.

The “why” of this work stoppage boils down to money: how much the industry is generating, how much should go to the players, and when they should be able to earn their fair market value. These questions take time to sort out. That it wasn’t sorted out by the time the CBA expired Wednesday is not necessarily good or bad, but rather like someone’s Facebook status: it’s complicated. We won’t know for months whether a lockout will impact the 2022 season or how.

There are reasons to be optimistic about a swift resolution. Start with the 26 years of labor peace. The reason there was no “why” powerful enough to cause a labor stoppage is because the industry has thrived on the back of its lucrative media rights contracts. There was, and is, plenty of money to go around. Until or unless the cable bubble bursts completely, that seems unlikely to change.

Against this backdrop, the MLB Players’ Association is not believed to be seeking a top-to-bottom overhaul of the system by which players are compensated. Rather, they are looking to tweak the process for free agency and arbitration eligibility, in hopes of allowing players to be compensated more fairly for their talents.

One proposal would have made all players eligible for salary arbitration after two years of service time, rather than three. (This was true for players after 1973 and before 1985.) Another would have triggered bonuses based on certain performance indicators, like postseason awards votes, for players who aren’t yet eligible for arbitration. Additionally, the Players’ Association reportedly proposed that players be eligible for free agency after five years if they are at least 30½ (beginning in 2022) or 29½ years old (beginning in 2024).

These proposals rest on the assumption that the current system requires tweaking. Any system that encourages teams to send major league talent to the minors to suppress their service time deserves revisiting. Any league in which saving money, not winning games, is the primary motive of a team executive should be called out as such. Players and owners deserve time to rectify these wrongs.

In last week’s column, I wrote about the viability of Wins Above Replacement as a basis for compensating players before they are eligible for arbitration – when their service time is most likely to be suppressed. Now, a different question seems more pressing: is free agency broken?

This is what I like to call a “boiling water question.” Say you see a pot of water boiling on the stove and ask why the water is boiling. I could be flippant and say “because I filled a pot with water and dialed up the burner underneath.” More to the point, I could say “because I am making pasta.” Or, I could explain the process by which water molecules excite in the presence of heat, make bubbles and convert to gas. All of these answers would be correct. One will be more appropriate than the others, depending on who’s asking.

If you’re infielder Marcus Semien, right-handed pitcher Kevin Gausman, or left-handed pitcher Robbie Ray, free agency looks alive and well. Those three were among more than two dozen free agents who reportedly agreed to terms (or put pen to paper on a contract) in the last 72 hours.

Semien received a reported seven-year, $175 million contract from the Texas Rangers. Gausman reportedly signed a five-year, $110 million contract with the Toronto Blue Jays. Ray will reportedly be guaranteed $115 million from the Seattle Mariners over the next five years. The Rangers, in fact, just guaranteed half a billion dollars to two players: Semien and former Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager.

Semien, Gausman and Ray are interesting cases. For all three, this was not their first offseason as free agents.

Semien signed a one-year, $18 million contract with Toronto a year ago. He played brilliantly, finishing third in American League MVP voting, then re-entered a crowded market and cashed in. Ray also signed with the Blue Jays last year, getting $8 million en route to the AL Cy Young Award. Gausman’s one-year contract with the Giants paid him $18.9 million in 2021.

All three add context to the idea that free agency no longer rewards “middle-tier free agents.” That’s essentially what Semien, Gausman and Ray were a year ago – serviceable veterans who didn’t project to become All-Stars. A frequent complaint from the union is that, a generation ago, similar players might have earned a larger contract based on their past performance; now teams will look to younger (read: less expensive) players already in their organization to try and replicate their production. This complaint is rooted in fact, not opinion.

It is also true that “middle-tier free agents” are not forever bound to the middle tier. Semien, Gausman and Ray so greatly improved their projections in 2021 that they will now earn generational wealth. A year ago, they might have been examples A, B, and C of why free agency seemed “broken.” Now, even a junior legal clerk could use them to prove the opposite.

Of course, not every middle-tier free agent becomes an All-Star. For every Semien, Gausman or Ray who wins the one-year bet on his own potential, there is a Cole Hamels or a Julio Teheran for whom injuries or poor performance (or both) decrease their market the season following their free-agent foray.

Then there are those players who might have been more willing to test free agency a generation ago, but now sign long-term contracts to keep them in place instead. We can’t know whether they received fair market value because they never reached free agency in the first place.

So, is free agency broken? The answer depends on who you ask. Even then, again, it’s complicated. The “why” behind the impending lockout might be easy to explain to your friends. Reckoning how MLB and the Players’ Association will sort things out is a bit more arduous – and provides some clue as to why the baseball industry will go quiet Thursday.

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