FOX Sports MLB Analyst
In the third installment of our new weekly column, we look at some under-examined elements of this offseason. First we’ll look at an undeniable trend within the free agent market, then the resurgence of a big-market team and another mini-trend that’s been developing undetected.
Hockey offers come to baseball
Between 2011 and 2013, three superstars — Albert Pujols, Joey Votto and Robinson Canó — signed decade-long deals that lasted until their 40th birthdays. No one else signed that contract until Trea Turner’s 11-year, $300 million deal with the Phillies earlier this month. His was quickly followed by two more, Xander Bogaerts (11 years, $280 million) and Carlos Correa (13 years, $350 million, then 12 years, $315 million).
Why the sudden rush? Clearly, Bryce Harper’s 13-year deal four years ago, which took him to age 39, has had an impact on the industry. By spreading Harper’s $330 million over 13 years instead of, say, 10, the Phillies reduced their annual luxury tax liability by nearly $8 million. This made his expenses the last two winters more palatable to the property. There are nine contracts in the history of the sport to exceed 10 years; seven of which were agreed upon from 2021.
Think of it more as a tax avoidance strategy than a strict plan to rely on the 40-year-old. If $300 million is Turner’s signing price, it makes a lot more sense for Philadelphia to pay it over 11 years than eight. .
These tactics are not entirely new. National Hockey League franchises have been doing it for nearly 15 years, starting several years after the league implemented a salary cap. MLB has no cap, of course, but many teams treat luxury tax thresholds as an unofficial cap.
In fact, there is a recent baseball example about a a lot smaller scale Before the 2018 season, the Dodgers signed Chase Utley to a two-year, $2 million contract, though both sides intended to continue their partnership for just one more season. The second year he cut the luxury tax figure in half, saving the Dodgers money.
An interesting question is how far these deals could go. The Athletic once reported that the Phillies offered Harper the same number for 15 years, and negotiated it down to 13. Major League Baseball reserves the right to reject deals that would obviously avoid the tax, so here there is a limit It’s not clear what exactly it could be. Shohei Ohtani’s 2023 free agency might tell us.
The Cubs finally commit to a path
Why, Cubs fans had demanded of ownership this winter, spend big money to land both Seiya Suzuki and Marcus Stroman a year ago, if they weren’t planning to augment that free agent duo with more veteran talent?
It was a fair question. It was worth asking why the Cubs chose last winter to guarantee $156 million to two free agents when almost each of the previous five years would have made more sense.
Not that either transaction seems terrible. Suzuki missed nearly a third of the season, but acquitted himself well when he was on the field. Stroman also got hurt, but pitched well enough when healthy that he’s on track to opt out after the 2023 season.
It’s more that the offers didn’t fit within the Cubs’ current roster. The point of MLB, obviously, is not to be mediocre. The point is to win. And if you can’t win, or don’t want to spend enough to win, basically every other team has shown that the best strategy is to lose (and save) enough so that you can soon win.
Instead, the 2022 Cubs went five wins better by signing Suzuki and Stroman. This led them to a 74-win season. Next summer they will draft 13th instead of something like eighth or ninth. The $156 million infusion of talent would have had much more impact for the 2019 or 2020 Cubs, who were a couple of players away from serious contention, or more serious contention. Instead, the Cubs chose to act later.
But they have finally done enough to justify their decision. In recent weeks, they’ve pledged nearly $70 million in 2023 payroll to Cody Bellinger, Jameson Taillon, Drew Smyly and Dansby Swanson, and made long-term commitments of nearly $250 million to the latter two players. Swanson, the shortstop coming off a career year, could push them to the brink of contention. They had to get there sooner rather than later, based on these free agent pickups.
Suzuki and Swanson will turn 29 in 2023. Stroman has the opt-out clause. Smyly is 33 years old. Taillon is 31 and not throwing as hard as he used to. Bellinger won’t be 28 until the All-Star break, but it’s been a long time since he’s been great. A couple more role plays between now and Opening Day would help the Cubs get a return on those investments.
It’s not just the top players who get paid
One of the stories of free agency over the past decade has been the concentration of dollars at the top of the market. Often forced to choose between several similar offers, middle-class veterans have earned less than before.
It’s not garnering the same attention as the multitude of offers for a decade, understandably, but it’s worth noting that this winter teams are paying fewer players more than has become the norm.
Consider the case of right-handed reliever Trevor May. Two years ago, he became the first notable free agent to sign with the Mets during Steve Cohen’s reign. He had just posted back-to-back outstanding seasons and earned a two-year, $15.5 million contract for his efforts.
May was just a free agent again. He battled injuries and ineffectiveness in 2022, and yet is unlikely to take a pay cut in 2023. Oakland, of all teams, agreed to pay him $7 million for next season. Or consider catcher Omar Narváez, who signed with the Mets for two years and $15 million after a horrible season in 2022. Or consider 42-year-old lefty Rich Hill, who was worse in 2022 than 2021, but will get a $3 million raise from Pittsburgh in 2023.
More players make more money this winter.
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Pedro Moura is the national baseball writer for FOX Sports. He previously covered the Dodgers for The Athletic, the Angels and Dodgers for the Orange County Register and LA Times, and his alma mater, USC, for ESPN Los Angeles. He is the author of “How to Overcome a Broken Game.” Follow him on Twitter at @pedromoura.
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