The quandary of the slow free-agent market and the Astros’ role within it

HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 04: Manager A.J. Hinch #14 of the Houston Astros and general manager Jeff Luhnow talk during batting practice at Minute Maid Park on April 4, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images)
HOUSTON, TX - APRIL 04: Manager A.J. Hinch #14 of the Houston Astros and general manager Jeff Luhnow talk during batting practice at Minute Maid Park on April 4, 2017 in Houston, Texas. (Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images) /

The slow free-agent market has been a hot button topic in baseball. And the Astros’ rebuild may have been one of numerous indirect causes.

Much has been made, and rightly so, of the slow free-agent market. There are a slew of players, notable ones, that haven’t signed with any team. And Spring Training begins in earnest next week.

What a quandary!

Now, I’m quite sure that there is no nefarious or dastardly plot in place by team owners conspiring against the players and agents. Certain players and agents are acting like there is an diabolical plan, though. And collusion has become the popular word in baseball circles.

Eh, I’m not sure about that. It could happen, but not in this current situation.

The slow free-agent market, I believe, is primarily a consequence of team’s spending more wisely and more efficiently. These teams are essentially thinking and behaving alike. There is also the looming consequence of the luxury tax. Alas, only the big spenders have to worry about that, like the New York Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers. Nobody likes to pay more in taxes despite how much money they actually have.

Wait, how does this topic apply to the Astros?

Patience is a virtue, my friend.

Like I’ve said, teams have gotten wiser. You now have graduates from Ivy League schools with economics degrees calling the shots instead of former players and managers. In turn, they’ve hired nerds to do the grunt work of analytics. The nerds have effectively won the war in baseball’s front offices. The Astros since 2011 are a prime example.

Thanks to the new age analytics and sabermetric principles, these nerdy front offices have realized that older players demanding top dollar for their services over multiple seasons are not actually worth it.

A common example this off-season has been J.D. Martinez. Sorry, but $20 to $25 million per season for five-to-seven years is likely too much for the 30-year old slugger.

Basically teams learned how to utilize their budget in an efficient manner. For the most part.

The real value lies in young, cheap, yet quality talent. And for some teams, this means tanking to acquire such talent. Otherwise known as losing now to hopefully win later. This also means not breaking the bank on free-agents. Craig Edwards of Fangraphs notes how total payroll may actually decrease in baseball compared to last year’s figures. Check out the entire post for your own benefit. Like Edwards mentions, some teams that are simply not in the position to spend more for only marginal gains. And the top teams aren’t spending big bucks if they don’t have to. If their place in the pecking order isn’t threatened, then why should they?

The Astros have indirectly contributed to this current free-agent situation to a certain extent, even though the organization has actually signed two major league relievers and traded for a starting pitcher. Yes, the Astros have actually been somewhat busy this winter. But it is really what the Astros have done in the past that has played a role in this current free-agent environment.

Famously, the Astros and Chicago Cubs embarked on massive rebuilds in recent years.

The Astros’ rebuild was arguably even more radical than the Cubs. Let’s just say lots of scorched earth and hurt feelings was involved. And as we all know, the Astros won the 2017 World Series. Other franchises witnessed, and likely doubted Houston’s rebuild at some point, before realizing there might be something to this strategy.

Maybe losing for three-to-five years for an extended window of contention in the future was worth it?

In turn, these rebuilding teams have decided not to spend on free-agents as a few extra wins doesn’t necessarily move the needle much. Like, what is the difference between 73 and 77 wins besides the loss of higher draft picks?

As we all know, Major League Baseball franchises like to reuse methods of success once proven. Tanking now to win in the future is the latest trend. This ties back to my original point about how teams are more wise and more efficient with their budgets. You also have multiple teams behaving and conducting business in a similar fashion, like tanking, now. And with the influx of teams acting this way, there are less options for players. In turn, it drives the demand downwards for high-priced free-agents, which lowers the amount of money in offers. Interested teams are basically waiting players out to drive down the price. Again, not truly collusion. This is just a byproduct of similar minds and implementation of comparable ideas.

All of that said, there are clearly issues within the current Collective Bargaining Agreement related to a player’s earning power.

Younger players in the majors are not being compensated relative to their actual production while older, declining veterans are receiving top dollar. Personally, a restructuring of the arbitration process could be warranted. Maybe adopt a contract structure similar to the NBA’s restricted free agency and salary caps? However, I’m not sure about the logistics of such a shift. At the same time, there is also the competitive balance issue to consider. The NBA, like the NFL, does not experience much in terms of parity today compared to baseball. And something about not touching something with a ten-foot pole immediately comes to mind.

And don’t get me started on the minor league salaries, or lack thereof. The MLB and the MLBPA should be ashamed about the absolute lack of a competitive wage in the minors. But that topic is for another time and day.

There are numerous, complex factors in play. Massive egos are on all sides. Change in the pay structure is needed in the long-term. The slow free agency has only accelerated the numerous issues facing baseball today and in the future. Players and agents must also change their expectations. Teams are well within their right to determine how much money they should spend. At the same time, team and league revenues continue to rise. Sooner or later, the players are going to demand a larger chunk of the money pie.

Next: Astros will visit the White House on March 12

As for the Astros, they shouldn’t be criminalized for their rebuilding plan. There were no guarantees that it would actually work out. At the same time, Houston’s situation was a bit different. The infrastructure had degraded to a point where a new front office had to recreate it from square one. The farm system hardly resembled one, much less a respectable one. It was easy to see why the front office led by Jeff Luhnow made the decision in 2011. It’s still quite simple to see today. Anyway, that’s my rant. If it makes sense, well, great. If not, then that is fine.