St. Louis Cardinals: Sluggish offseason, a cause and effect expose

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 25: Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. attends the 2017 Hank Aaron Award press conference prior to game two of the 2017 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on October 25, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 25: Major League Baseball Commissioner Robert D. Manfred Jr. attends the 2017 Hank Aaron Award press conference prior to game two of the 2017 World Series between the Houston Astros and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on October 25, 2017 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Tim Bradbury/Getty Images) /
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St. Louis Cardinals
St. Louis Cardinals /

The extremely sluggish free agent market this offseason has had an impact on virtually all teams, including the St. Louis Cardinals. It is Dan’s turn to expound on his theories for the slow offseason.

Three key factors slowing the offseason

Writers and baseball insiders focus on the flawed free agent class; the prowess of next year’s free agents; the luxury tax; and general managers being smarter.  My take is different.

The slow offseason is being caused by three primary factors:  (1) the performance gap between high-end minor league players and MLB veterans is smaller; (2) tanking teams are willing to sell reasonably-controlled young assets in trade; and (3) Scott Boras.

First, because of better data on minor league players and performance, and because minor league players are more advanced than ever, teams are opting for players making the league minimum with six years of MLB-level control instead of veterans who command much higher salaries.

Why would a team spend exponentially higher amounts of money on a veteran who will soon decline when the difference in production between that player and a top prospect is marginal, at best?

The analytics-driven front offices of today are here, and the front offices that paid for past performance are mere vestiges of yesteryear.

The new front offices will not do that deal. The analytics-driven front offices of today are here, and the front offices that paid for past performance are mere vestiges of yesteryear.  Front offices no longer want to pay for past performance when a player is entering (or will be entering shortly after the deal is signed) his decline.  The tension between age and commanded dollars for free agents reached its tipping point this year and teams have not budged (er, adjusted) – nor will they.

Second, there are only a handful of teams in each league in any given year that actually plan to compete.  The remaining teams are employing the Chicago Cubs’ and Houston Astros’ model of tanking and dumping salaries to build assets and draft picks (Jerry Dipoto said there is more competition for the number one pick in the draft than there is for the world series this year – and he’s right).

Thus, with only a few teams requiring the resources of free agents, demand is down, and the teams who are competing for free agents have the leverage.

The bad teams who will take, but do not need, free agents also have leverage to force salaries down since there is no salary floor or minimum spending requirements in MLB.  Unless MLB or MLBPA do something about tanking, super teams and the squeezing of free agents will continue.

Third, super-agent Scott Boras badly misread the situation and market, and other agents followed suit.  Boras traditionally waits out tough markets and that paid dividends for some of his best free agents (a la Prince Fielder).  But, that strategy is not working this year.  Scott failed to adapt to the market and recognize the new environment in which he operates, and it will cost his clients dearly.

Scott cannot bully teams into submission anymore because so few teams intend to compete.  Scott fell victim to assuming what would happen in this market, and teams are refusing to accommodate his hollow assumption.

The oft-discussed luxury tax “burden”

Finally, articles discussing the competitive balance tax and other salary-cap-type measures are correct that not exceeding the competitive balance tax is a factor in the slow offseason.  But, that is not a predominant factor because so few teams operated at those salary levels before the tax was in place.

The real driver is that tanking teams refuse to spend money – which is ironic because many of these same teams are receiving huge dividends and payments from the revenue sharing protocols under the current collective bargaining agreement (revenue sharing teams are essentially paying Jeter’s salary in Miami, for example).

The poorly-negotiated CBA (from a player’s perspective) is the clear driving force here.  The problem is that other than through the grievance procedure, players have no recourse until the deal expires after the 2021 season.

Players need to urge a salary floor and penalties for tanking teams to make those teams spend more money.  Until that happens, it will be slow offseasons for all but the marquee, young free agents (think Manny Machado and Bryce Harper).

Larry, am I off the mark here?  What is driving the slow offseason from your perspective?  How is it that a guy who bashed 45 home runs last year and had over a .900 OPS remains unsigned? How do two former aces not have deals yet?  Why is the best first baseman in baseball still unemployed?

I would love your comment on my thoughts, above, and on whatever I’m missing so we can figure this mess out.

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