Columnists, Sports

7th Inning Stretch: It’s time to address MLB’s broken system of free agency

Baseball is a game of jargon. Pitchers warm up in the “bullpen.” When a fielder catches the ball in the very tip of his glove, it’s a “snowcone.” Heck, the name of this very column is a baseball idiom.

With the 2019 season officially behind us, we have now entered the offseason, or as it’s been called in baseball since the 19th century, the Hot Stove League.

In his 2006 book, “Baseball and the Mythic Moment: How We Remember the National Game,” professor James Hardy Jr. explores the history of this moniker. Back in the days of smalltown America, he writes men “gathered at the general store/post office, sat around an iron pot-bellied stove, and discussed the passing parade. Baseball, along with weather, politics, the police blotter and the churches, belonged in that company.”

Fast forward a couple hundred years and not much has changed. Fans (and not just men) still gather to discuss the issues of the day, from baseball to healthcare. Only today, the traditional general store has been replaced by Twitter. Nevertheless, the offseason remains an exciting time for baseball fans, as all 30 teams are offered the chance to start anew.

In recent years, however, that seemingly mythical stove has come dangerously close to sizzling out. Entering last offseason, Bryce Harper and Manny Machado were two of the most talented free agents baseball had seen in years. Both generational talents, they were expected to dominate the winter and trigger multi-team bidding wars. Instead, Machado signed with the San Diego Padres on Feb. 19 and Harper signed with the Philadelphia Phillies on Feb. 28, days after pitchers and catchers had reported.

What had promised to be an exciting few months of negotiations and rumors turned into a sport-wide sludge. Two of the top pitchers on the free agent market, Craig Kimbrel and Dallas Keuchel, remained unsigned until June.

It was becoming increasingly clear that the baseball’s free agency system is broken. So how do we fix it? As we enter an offseason with more elite free agents –– including Gerrit Cole and World Series stars Stephen Strasburg and Anthony Rendon –– how can the Major League Baseball prevent further damage?

Many in and around the sport have advanced potential solutions. From agents like Scott Boras to baseball writers and even team executives, there is a consensus that something needs to change. Let’s take a look at some of the proposals.

The most common, and to me compelling, is the idea of instituting an offseason trade (and even signing) deadline. The in-season deadline of July 31 creates an incredible buzz within the game, forcing teams to act decisively and boldly. The argument here is to create a similar deadline in the offseason, with the same goal of generating movement and encouraging teams to act quickly before time runs out.

The 2019 Baseball Winter Meetings take place in San Diego from Dec. 8 to 2. Many blockbuster trades and signings occur during these meetings each year, as a heightened sense of urgency and competition is packed into one hectic week. Hundreds of executives, agents and reporters congregate in one hotel to hash out deals and negotiate contracts, while the whole thing is meticulously covered on television and social media. That’s all well and good, but the hot stove often cools off the second the meetings end.

To keep the energy up, why not establish an offseason trade deadline shortly after the meetings? A Christmas or New Years cutoff would place even more pressure on teams who otherwise feel no need to rush, while still allowing for two full months of planning and execution, followed by a month and a half to prepare for the beginning of spring training.

Another possible solution is to rethink the rules of free agency itself. The policies are complex, but here’s one way to look at it, courtesy of “FiveThirtyEight,” with very few numbers.

Baseball players typically peak in their mid to late 20s. Because of baseball’s rookie contract rules, which keep a player under team control for his first six years of service, many don’t reach free agency until after their prime has passed. In fact, according to the article, the average age of free agents signed last offseason was 32.2 years old. Dating back to the 2013-14 offseason, the average signing age has remained around 33 years. For some players, that can be as many as six years past their prime.

One way to address this troubling trend is the idea of a restricted free agency, similar to the system in the National Basketball Association. Without getting into the nitty-gritty, it would basically mean creating a tiered free agency structure in which players have varying levels of signing freedom based on their service time.

It sounds similar to the MLB’s current arbitration process, but ultimately there needs to be a way to get players to free agency sooner. Imagine if players like Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, and Juan Soto became free agents at 25 or 26 instead of at 29 or 30. We would’ve hit $300 million contracts years ago.

Major League Baseball has been hurtling toward its impending labor negotiations for awhile now. With a new Collective Bargaining Agreement needed by 2021, it seems to be the perfect time for conversations like these to take place in the game. The sooner the brainstorming begins, the better.

On many occasions, the MLB has offered intelligent and realistic solutions to its problems. While I have my qualms about some of them –– I don’t love the idea of a pitch clock or beginning extra innings with a runner on second base –– conversations around pace of play have generated plenty of ideas. There has been no shortage of creativity or innovation.

When it comes to rejuvenating the offseason and free agency, there needs to be more discussion. The league cannot afford to have its stars wait until February, or June, to sign. If something isn’t done soon, the hot stove will fully freeze over.

One Comment

  1. Agents cause the delay in signing. They want the largest contracts for their clients as it makes more money for them. This sets the market for lower tier players with what money is left available.