Making sense of unsigned free agents

Salary structure could be shifting away from big deals for aging players

January 20th, 2018

For years now, it has been clear to many people around the game that baseball is in the midst of a salary bubble … and eventually that bubble is probably going to burst. That might be what we're seeing now with the collection of very good ballplayers -- J.D. Martinez, , , , , Mike Moustakas, etc. -- still looking for their club even as Spring Training looms barely a month away.
To be fair, this also might be something else. It might just be a perfect storm. There are a lot of things happening. The biggest spending teams all seem eager to get under the luxury-tax threshold. The best players in this year's market (particularly Hosmer and Martinez) do not seem a great fit for many teams. Next year's free-agent class (led by and Manny Machado) will be one of the best in baseball history.
But look at this: Best as I can tell, there are at least eight 30-something players out there who are still owed more than $100 million by their teams:
1. (34 years old)
Six years, $184 million left in deal, plus vesting option
2. (32 years old)
Five years, $157 million left in deal, can opt out after this year
3. Joey Votto (34 years old)
Six years, $150 million left in deal, plus $7 million buyout
4. Max Scherzer (33 years old)
Four years, $148 million left in deal, much of it deferred
5. (35 years old)
Six years, $144 million left in deal
6. Zack Greinke (34 years old)
Four years, $138 million left in deal
7. Chris Davis (31 years old)
Five years, $115 million left in deal
8. (38 years old)
Four years, $114 million left in deal, plus $10 million personal services contract
There are still some excellent players on this list -- Scherzer won the National League Cy Young Award last year, Votto was an MVP candidate -- but there are some contracts in there that clubs might regret. Four more years for Pujols, who had an 81 OPS+ last year. Six more years for Cabrera, who was seventy points below his career average last year. Five more years for Davis, who slugged .423 last season at age 31, two years after hitting 47 homers and getting that deal.
Even the contracts that look good now are likely to look worse next year, and even worse the year after that. That, sadly, is how aging works. If you were a general manager, would you give out any of those contracts? Maybe the Scherzer one.
People around the game have known for a while now that the aging curve of baseball players crests and begins to fall much earlier than most people believe. In the 1970s and 1980s, it was quite common for people to say that baseball players hit their peak at 32.
We know now that not only is 32 well into the decline phase of most baseball players, it is actually past the end of many careers. Just look at this year's Hall of Fame ballot: Orlando Hudson had his last productive season at 31; Johan Santana was done at 31; Andruw Jones was done at 30. There is some thinking now that many players actually crest more in the first three or four years of their time in the big leagues.
That thinking cuts hard against the salary structure as we have long known it. For decades, teams have paid top dollar for the decline seasons of the best players. Maybe a handful of those contracts worked out. Most were destructive. I only listed the $100 million contracts above. But the Yankees owe 34-year-old $68 million for the next three years and they are reportedly struggling to trade him. The Royals owe 34-year-old $40 million for the next two years, plus a buyout. The Cubs owe $75 million, plus a conditional buyout, for the next three years, and they are hoping that at age 34 he can bounce back from a rough season.
What does it mean this year? We are probably seeing it play out. Martinez is coming off a crazy year; he hit 29 home runs in just 62 games for Arizona. Even if that was a fluke, well, what team in baseball couldn't use that sort of bat? Thing is, Martinez is 30 years old. He might age better than his comps listed on Baseball-Reference, such as Jason Bay (last good year at 30), Geoff Jenkins (last good year at 30) and Kevin Mitchell (last good year at 32, but inconsistent the two years before that). A team would have to make a bet. And teams are less likely to make a big bet. Instead of a seven-year deal, it's a four- or five-year one. Instead of $27 million a year, it might be $20 million. And so on.

Arrieta is 31. Some pitchers age well. Some don't. His Baseball-Reference comps don't inspire much confidence, either. Pete Vuckovich was basically done at 29. Tim Belcher had a bunch of uninspiring seasons before having one renaissance year at 34. Arrieta does famously keep himself in great shape, so that could make him a better bet.
Our own Mike Petriello has been hammering home the point again and again that at almost 32, Cain is the type of player who ages well. Cain was really good in 2017 and it is surprising that more teams -- particularly teams in desperate need of a center fielder -- aren't going harder after him. Maybe they are and it just hasn't been made public yet.

Point is, for a long time we have seen the outline of the bubble. A friend of mine likes to call this "the future we already know." We all know that sooner or later teams will stop giving out six- and seven- and 10-year contracts that carry players into their late 30s and early 40s because it almost never makes sense. Players looking for big paydays after several excellent years will find that the payoff isn't as big as they hoped.
Maybe it happens this year. Maybe not. Scott Boras and other agents might still have a surprise or two left this offseason, and maybe Hosmer and Martinez and others will manage to sign gigantic long-term deals. But time runs out on the old way of doing business. The bubble is bursting.