Pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training this week for all 30 MLB teams. By next week, all rostered players will have reported to either Arizona or Florida for the start of the MLB season, but barring major developments in the next week, there may be some superstars who will still not be on a team.
Dallas Keuchel, Craig Kimbrel and Gio Gonzalez headline the pitchers who have not signed, and thus they will be missing the beginning of Spring Training with whichever team they eventually sign with.
Keuchel led the American League with 34 starts last year and posted a 3.74 ERA with 153 strikeouts and 1.31 WHIP. While those may not be superstar numbers, it is much better than what some teams plan to be putting out on the mound every fifth day. He also has a history of being a superstar, winning the Cy Young award in 2015 and posting a sub-3 ERA in three of the last five years. On top of all of that, he is an elite defender on the mound, winning the Gold Glove Award four of the last five years.
Next we move on to Kimbrel, who at only 30 years old is the MLB’s active saves leader with 333 saves, including eight straight years with at least 30 saves. Last season he had 42 saves for the World Champion Red Sox, and he had a 2.74 ERA and averaged 13.9 strikeouts per nine innings. Kimbrel would be an upgrade for nearly every team in the closer role, so it is mystifying that he still has not signed.
In terms of hitters who have still not signed, the list is even more talented than the pitchers. Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Mike Moustakas have all yet to sign, even though it seems every team is trying their hand at making an offer.
Harper is a perennial MVP candidate who is only going to be 26 this year. He is entering the prime of his career, and still no team is willing to spend the money to go out and get him. Machado is the same age as Harper and has arguably had better offensive numbers than Harper throughout his career.
Machado has at least 33 home runs each of the last four years and last year set a career high with a .297 batting average. The one knock on him is his reputation as a dirty player, as well as comments on not being a hustle player during the playoffs last year. Even with those downsides, Machado is an elite player who should be signed by now.
All of these unsigned players is similar to last year, when J.D. Martinez and Yu Darvish both made it to the start of Spring Training having not signed. This pattern is becoming disconcerting to fans, and the MLB needs to rectify this.
While I think the owners and management of MLB teams are way too stingy to spend when most are billionaires, this problem is an issue with the players, not the teams. Every player seems to be demanding a record-breaking contract, regardless of how much they actually deserve it.
Both Kimbrel and Harper have stated that they are pursuing long-term, record setting contracts. Harper is pursuing a contract in excess of 300 million dollars, and Kimbrel is seeking a deal for over 100 million dollars.
While Harper is one of the most talented players in the game, his performance has not warranted a record setting contract. Kimbrel may be the active saves leader, but the closer position can be so volatile, and Kimbrel has crested 30 years old, meaning in all likelihood his production will decrease from here on.
There has also been a history of mega-deals blowing up in the offering teams’ faces. As a Los Angeles Angels fan, I know this better than most (looking at you: Vernon Wells, Josh Hamilton, C.J. Wilson and Albert Pujols). These huge deals may look good in order to get a star player, but often by the end of the contract the team has become crippled by the backloaded contract and is forced to tank for multiple years (the Angels will be paying Pujols 30 million dollars in his age-41 season).
Teams are not willing to take the same risks as before, and players have to adjust to the state of affairs. Harper cannot expect to get paid 30 million in his age-36 season, and Kimbrel cannot expect 20 million in his age 35 season. In this age of analytics, teams have realized that players just do not put up the same production in those later years of a contract, and thus it is not worth getting a player during their prime if it means you’ll also be stuck paying them like a superstar as their career tapers out.
These disputes only add to the tension between players and teams, which does not bode well for 2021 when they must agree upon a new Collective Bargaining Agreement. Hopefully by that point the players will have realized their outrageous demands and focus on being on a team for Spring Training so that they can actually play baseball.