Saturday, 09 February 2019 13:14

"MATTer of Opinion" Sports Column: Free agent waiting game could impact MLB's future

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Sports columnist Matt Harrelson. Sports columnist Matt Harrelson.

It's now less than a week until pitchers and catchers start reporting for Spring Training, and yet two of baseball's biggest stars remain without teams.

Bryce Harper, who has played his entire career with the Washington Nationals, and Manny Machado, who last played for the Los Angeles Dodgers, are both 26-year-old elite hitters at the peak of their careers -- yet they are still struggling to find employment. How exactly did this happen, and what could it mean for the league going forward?

The potential $500 million question is are Harper and Machado actually worth these massive long-term contracts, and the answer is yes -- at times.

Harper has competed with the Los Angeles Angels' Mike Trout as the best player in the game. He was the National League Rookie of the Year in 2012 and led the league in home runs in 2015, when he also won the NL MVP at the age of 23. He was the youngest ever to win the award unanimously. He's a six-time All-Star and capped off his Washington career by winning the Home Run Derby at Nationals Park last year.

Machado, while not quite the player that Harper is, is a four-time All-Star and two-time Gold Glove winner, and a lifetime .282 hitter who has already hit 175 homers in the Major Leagues.

However, are there any reasons teams are hesitant to sign either of them, and the answer to that question is also yes -- at times.

Machado has a reputation among fans as a dirty player. He's been part of several bench-clearing brawls, most notably in last year's playoffs after a hard slide into Milwaukee Brewers' Jesus Aguilar. Previously, when he was with the Baltimore Orioles, he got into a physical altercation with Kansas City Royals pitcher Yordano Ventura, which led to a four-game suspension.

Harper, too, has had his moments of hotheadedness, including being part of a fight with pitcher Hunter Strickland of the Giants in the 2017 NL Division Series. That year, he also spent some time on the DL with a bone bruise, which in theory, would be a red flag for some teams, although overall he's been pretty durable for an MLB player. It doesn't feel like either of those factors should affect teams desire to sign him, particularly given his undoubted talent.

So why hasn't anybody signed them? 

No one wants to spend money. No, seriously. That's the reason. Major League Baseball remains a ridiculously lucrative enterprise. The league brought in $10.3 billion last year, and most teams remain well in the black. Famously, the MLB doesn't have a salary cap, merely a luxury tax, so freeing up money for big name free agents shouldn't be a problem.

As far as the luxury tax goes, only the World Series champion Boston Red Sox and the Nationals went over the $197 million threshold last year, and not re-signing Harper should take care of clearing that hurdle for the Nats this year.

As super-agent Scott Boras has rightfully observed, there are a number of clubs that look like they're not even attempting to field competitive teams (looking at you Miami Marlins). The rest of them have mostly been spending their offseason filling out their rosters by signing players on bargain contracts. It's becoming more difficult for major market teams to sell fans the idea that payroll flexibility is preventing them from offering big contracts to free agents, especially for the likes of a Harper or a Machado.

Other quality players such as starting pitchers Dallas Keuchel and Gio Gonzalez, closer Craig Kimbrel, third baseman Mike Moustakas, infielder Marwin Gonzalez and outfielder Adam Jones -- among many others -- also remain unsigned.

It's a weird coincidence (or maybe it's not) that every team stopped spending money all at once. It's hard not to assume that there's some sort of informal agreement going on between clubs to keep wages low. The longer this offseason has gone on, the more analysts have begun to bring up the possibility of collusion. The idea has even come out of the mouths of current and former players, such as Alex Rodriguez. 

Is there actually collusion? I can't say for sure, although it's not exactly unheard of when you look at the history of the league. In any case, even if there is no collusion going on here, there's certainly the appearance of it, and that's not good for the league.

As far as where Harper and Machado end up is anybody's guess at this point. The Phillies, White Sox, Yankees, Padres and Giants, among a handful of other teams, have been linked to either player or both superstars. Some have speculated it could be in their best interest to possibly take a one- or two-year deal and hope that the offseasons and markets change between now and then. Believe it or not, it's not inconceivable that Machado and Harper will remain unsigned by the time Spring Training games start, and if that happens, we'll pretty much be in unknown territory.

Regarding MLB's future when it comes to free agency, the luxury tax basically now works as a de facto salary cap. The MLB is continuing to see rising profits, but players are starting to get paid less. If these trends continue, the Major League Baseball Players Association is going to have to push back. It's doubtful that owners are going to give in to demands, especially since they are well aware that players get the brunt of the blame whenever there's a players' strike or owners' lockout.

The current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2021, and as that date nears, we could be facing a lost season for the first time since the 1994-95 strike. So, enjoy baseball while you still can, fans.