Plus ça Change
Once upon a time, back in the pre-free agency days of yore, many baseball players who made it to the big leagues came up with the team for whom they played – and that is where they stayed. For their entire career. They were scouted and drafted, or found their way into the minor leagues in some other way, and worked their way up through the ranks till they landed on the major league roster – and they stayed on that roster till retirement.
Of course, pretty early on in the game, owners figured out they could trade players, managers, and coaches for assets they felt would be more helpful to their team’s needs; but if you were a player who was never subjected to trade, chances are you stayed put “for life,” so to speak.
And then along came free agency, whose impact we’ve described before in Up N’ In, and the notion and business of player agents got a huge boost, and player value was boosted, all while the idea of using particular players to market one specific team for their entire career became diluted.
Initially, player agents assisted their clients by landing them sponsorships, television and radio spots, and other advertising revenue (imagine having a candy bar named after you!); but as free agency began to boom, agents got more into the business of negotiating playing contracts for their clients – which had never been done before. Players had negotiated directly with their teams, and that was that.
Well, over time, we’ve eventually entered an era of free agent player value – and the actions of their agents – becoming so dominant in the game that player salaries are annually increasing at almost astronomical rates; and reaching a $293M luxury cap is no longer enough of a threshold to be the biggest owner-spender in MLB.
As a result, what we’re beginning to see is a reaction to all this freewheeling spending; and that reaction is teams are starting to extend their best players for eight-nine-ten-eleven years beyond their initial contracts – not just for fear of losing them in free agency, but for fear of how much they might have to outbid the other guy just to hold onto them and keep them in the family.
Hence, we’re now embarking on an era in which you may once again start to see the best players in the game remaining with one team for their entire career.
Add on the fact that most of these lengthy contracts have strict no-trade clauses attached to them, and you know that a player like Mike Trout or Aaron Judge is simply staying put. And if the Angels really cared about their team’s competitiveness, Shohei Ohtani would have been extended by now for some lengthy term of years.
Mike Trout #27 of the Los Angeles Angels hits a solo home run against the Oakland Athletics in the top of the eighth inning at RingCentral Coliseum on October 05, 2022 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Don’t be surprised if Juan Soto never hits the free agent market, after the precedent set by some of the larger contract extensions we’ve already seen. The Padres are playing no-nonsense baseball with their signings of late, and they may make him an offer he and his agent can’t refuse before other teams even have a chance to come calling.
Now, Soto was traded by the Nationals to the Padres, so he still wouldn’t be a “one team for lifer” even if he remains a Padre until retirement; but he’d come as close as a player can with only one trade having entered the mix.
The team that seems to be the best at managing all this is the Braves, but we’ll return to them in a bit.
And these examples, my good friends, hark back to an old scientific saying (Newton’s Third Law, in fact): “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction.”
Or, as my multilingual parents were always fond of saying, “plus ҫa change, plus c’est la même chose” (French for “the more things change, the more they stay the same”).
It was ownership without agents who determined players’ contract duration and compensation in the early days of baseball – and it’s ownership, once again, who’s determining which players are worth the investment of a ten-year contract to keep them on their current team for life. Just ask Steve Cohen, owner of the Mets. He’ll spend almost any amount, by his own admission, to keep a top-tier player locked in – should the player so desire.
Juan Soto #22 of the San Diego Padres signs autographs for fans during the San Diego Padres Fan Fest at PETCO Park on February 4, 2023 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Matt Thomas/San Diego Padres/Getty Images)
So the reaction of the players, their agents, and the MLB Players Association to the way contracts worked back in the 1970’s led to the advent of free agency in 1975; but the equal and opposite reaction of the owners, though it may have taken some 45 years, is to try and prevent free agency in the most unique cases – or at least, keep it at bay (as in Aaron Judge’s case) – because of the toll it’s starting to take on their payrolls and the loss of long-term branding and marketing for their teams.
Part of what differentiates major league baseball from minor league baseball is the longevity with which the good players who play on the team stay with the team. That’s not to say there aren’t one-year signings and short-term contracts even at the major league level; but if you’re a fan of your local Double-A or Triple-A team, you’ve got to come to expect a certain amount of turnover to occur from year to year. And you want those players getting their promotions and opportunities.
But if you’re a fan of a major league team, and there’s a marquee player on your team, do you want him to have the option of just leaving to go play elsewhere? Well, both yes and no. He deserves to get paid what he’s worth, but you’d prefer he’d be able to stick around and have that happen on your own team.
Aaron Judge #99 of the New York Yankees and Spike Lee talk during the 2023 BBWAA Awards Dinner at New York Hilton Midtown on Saturday, January 28, 2023 in New York, New York. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
The MLB Players Association wants that player to have the option to go to any team he chooses, and so does his agent. But one open question is whether all this movement over the past 47 years has hurt the popularity of the game, and whether front offices are beginning to realize that letting their best players walk in free agency has actually hurt their bottom line in terms of ballpark sales and marketing more generally.
Owners in the 1920s understood this. Owners in the 2020s are finally catching up by a hundred years and realizing it, as well.
Figure, if you’re the Angels, and you had let Mike Trout walk in free agency because you weren’t willing to sign him for twelve years, would that have hurt your bottom line more than the actual lengthy contract does? Trout’s injuries are probably preventing him from being the player he once was, but he and his brand and face carried the Angels for a long enough period that the down years at the end of the contract were worth the investment required in his deal.
And that’s probably true for all the lengthy deals we’ve been seeing over the past couple of years, whether they were made for players who came up with the team or players for whom the team traded.
Which brings us back to the Braves, whose front office has provided a master class in preventing the sting of free agency to the team.
Houston Astros General Manager Dana Brown presents Michael Harris II #23 of the Atlanta Braves with the 2022 National League Rookie of the Year Award during the 2023 BBWAA Awards Dinner at New York Hilton Midtown on Saturday, January 28, 2023 in New York, New York. (Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images)
Since 2019, the Atlanta Braves have signed the following extensions for player personnel they consider key to their team:
Ozzie Albies: seven years, $35 million
Ronald Acuna Jr.: eight years, $100 million
Matt Olson: eight years, $168 million
Austin Riley: ten years, $212 million
Michael Harris II: eight years, $72 million
Spencer Strider: seven years, $92 million
Sean Murphy: seven years, $88 million
Apart from the Braves not having signed Freddie Freeman or Dansby Swanson when they hit free agency (or prior to it), you’d be hard pressed to name a player critical to the team who hasn’t been extended for at least seven years.
Many in the industry would call this foresight; foresight that Hal Steinbrenner, for example, has been accused of not having in the case of Aaron Judge. But I think Judge may have been the tipping point, and aside from cases in which the player seems to have wanted to leave their original team (Jacob deGrom?), we may begin to see more and more of the strategy employed by the Braves.
Freddie Freeman has already said that if he thought he might have been re-signed by the Braves, he might not have gone to the Dodgers.
Freddie Freeman #5 of the Los Angeles Dodgers runs to second base after hitting a two-run RBI double during the third inning against the San Diego Padres in game four of the National League Division Series at PETCO Park on October 15, 2022 in San Diego, California. (Photo by Denis Poroy/Getty Images)
Players want to get paid their worth, but they do not like constant upheaval. It’s not just upheaval for them, it’s upheaval for their families, as well. And it certainly is upheaval for their fan bases.
Owners are starting to dislike not just the cost, but the upheaval, as well, of free agency. That’s one reason Aaron Judge was named Yankee captain almost immediately after re-signing with the Yankees. Make him the face of the team, perhaps the face on the next plaque in Monument Park, and capitalize on his image and relationship with the fan base for life.
It’s not that hard. Not everything they did a hundred years ago needs to be fixed.