Columnists, Sports

Fair or Foul: What MLB’s massive debt means for impending free agents

On Oct. 27, the Los Angeles Dodgers finally won their first world championship since 1988. While this news certainly brought much excitement to Dodgers fans and symbolized the completion of an unprecedented whirlwind of a season, it also means the beginning of another long offseason. 

However, this offseason will be unlike any other for two main reasons.

The first factor this offseason and free agency will encounter for the first time is the $8.3 billion of debt the league took on in 2020. 

With no fans in the stands — thus refunds, an absence of ticket sales and a lack of concessions and souvenirs purchased by thousands — Major League Baseball teams seem to have way less money available to spend on players than ever before.

Consider the number of veteran players who are all still serviceable or better when on the field, but were non-tendered with their previous teams. 

Four key players have experienced this unfortunate reality over the last week. 

Second baseman Kolten Wong, who spent the last eight seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals providing serviceable hitting and elite defense, now sits unemployed with no sendoff of any kind from Cardinals fans or the organization. 

Reliever Brad Hand — who made three straight All-Star teams from 2017 to 2019, had a career-best 0.773 walks-and-hits-per-inning-pitched average in 2020, and was owed $10 million next season — now has no team.

Despite being an exceptional left-handed pitcher, the Cleveland Indians would not pay him what he was due and waived him. Then, no other team wanted to claim him and his contract. 

Outfielder Ryan Braun, a league MVP and 14-year veteran with the Milwaukee Brewers, suddenly had the final year of his deal terminated. Though the “Hebrew Hammer” ended up having a tumultuous career with the Brew Crew, he still accrued nearly 2,000 career hits and more than 350 home runs.

Braun spent more than a decade with the same team, yet gets no sendoff. 

Lastly, there’s right-hander Charlie Morton. This is the same Morton who pitched in the World Series just a little more than a week ago, and was a veteran presence on a very young and raw Rays staff. However, the fact remains that the soon-to-be 37-year-old was also owed more than $10 million in 2021, and the Rays need to be more aware of costs than nearly every other team. 

As such, Morton will need to sign a new deal for far less dough in order to return, and the issue persists over whether he will even pitch in 2021. If he chooses to postpone retirement and return, his paycheck, like all the others mentioned, will take a substantial hit.

Aside from players who unexpectedly became free agents, there is also the issue of those who planned on it heading into the winter. A truly astounding thought centers around the qualifying offer: a one-year, $18.9-million contract offered by that player’s team, which they can accept outright, forfeiting the chance to test the market.

If the player who receives that offer turns it down and goes to free agency, any team that signs them forfeits a compensatory draft pick for taking them away from the previous team. 

This system is viewed poorly by many fans and players for the way it handcuffs players who turn down the offer by driving away other teams who do not want to sacrifice draft capital.

Despite the financial doom and gloom lurking for the league, this offer was extended to six players, including superstars DJ LeMahieu, Trevor Bauer, George Springer and J.T. Realmuto. Those picks make sense, because their teams have gobs of cash to spend and deem these players worth it.

However, pitchers Marcus Stroman and Kevin Gausman also received the offer. Stroman is at best a third starter and did not play in 2020, while Gausman had a solid — but still not worth $18.9 million — truncated campaign. 

The fact that teams willingly coughed up such huge amounts of money to players, regardless of whether they deserve it, is mind-boggling, especially with equally talented veterans losing all of their expected salaries and the entire league facing enormous debt. 

Only time will tell if the veterans get new deals to play in 2021 and if these players will accept nearly $20 million guaranteed, or test the market in the coming months.

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