We’ve traveled from declaring this offseason market to being “weird” a couple months ago to “collusion!” today. I’m not certain I’ve packed my bags for that trip, but there’s certainly something afoot. The latest, the Mets signing Todd Frazier for two years at a total of $17 million, is the first hint of desperation. Not by the teams, but rather by the players.
Frazier was universally thought to be worth a deal in the neighborhood of three years and $32 million (Jon Heyman’s mystery agent) to $42 million (Fangraphs community estimates). My handy, dandy contract estimator spreadsheet (with an aging curve and inflation built in) comes up with a number around $37 million for three years, so smack in the middle of the outlying estimates. Instead, Frazier is off a year of guaranteed money and taking about $15 to $20 million less from the best guesstimates to play baseball for the Mets.
You can’t blame Frazier for taking this offer, although it smacks of being lowballed. As of this writing, word is trickling out that Frazier preferred to play close to his home in New Jersey; perhaps there’s some kind of hometown discount built in that needs to be considered. Still, the money isn’t there for the players this winter. We’re three-plus months through the offseason and only one free agent has inked a deal that will pay him for more than three seasons.
Naturally, your thoughts turn to Mike Moustakas. Where does this leave the beloved Moose? Dayton Moore appeared on 810 WHB in Kansas City on Monday and had some interesting things to say about the former Royals third baseman.
“We have options at third… Moustakas had some expectations that were a little different, places he wanted to play. It was clear from the beginning we weren’t a high priority.”
For some reason when Moore alludes to Moustakas wanting to play someplace else, I can’t help but think of Anaheim. Remember, that was the consensus landing spot for Moustakas at the open of the offseason. It made sense. The Angels have traditionally deep pockets, a need at third base, and would be close to home for the third baseman. Instead, the Angels signed Zack Cozart (three years at $38 million) and announced they would be shifting him from short to third. Scratch the Angels off the shortlist.
That wasn’t the only option. Yet one by one, those options have disappeared. Whether through avoiding a luxury tax penalty or just finding less expensive talent, the market for the Moose has seemingly gone dry.
Is Dayton Moore hurt that the Royals weren’t the “priority?” Probably not. Moore has been around long enough to know that this is a business. Players have ideal teams just as teams have ideal players. And as Moore noted, the Royals own priority this winter has been Eric Hosmer. Even if the Royals are somewhat inexplicably targeting Hosmer, because of the contract he would command and the pool of resources available to Moore this offseason, it stands to reason any kind of talks with Moustakas would have to wait. They’re not going to be able to sign both and the Royals preference is crystal clear.
So what the hell is going on? Days before camps open to pitcher and catchers, seven or eight of the best free agents this winter are still looking for work. Scott Boras represents five of those players, including the former Royals dynamic duo. Boras has waited out the market before, with success, but he hasn’t done it with this many players so late in the process. And the case of his stable of top tier free agents won’t be helped by contracts like Frazier. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember that ballplayers are human, too. They like their stability just like everyone else. As report dates inch closer on the calendar, over 100 free agents are lacking the certainty they crave at this time of year. Bags are to be packed, plans are to be made and right now so many are in limbo.
Of course, it’s difficult to feel sorry for Hosmer and Boras. Hosmer, who has dueling seven year offers in his pocket, is reportedly looking for nine years. Nine! That may have played in 2015, but that’s not happening today. And such demands, if accurate, represent a gross miscalculation of the market. There’s posturing and setting yourself up for negotiations, and there’s ignorance. Guess where we are at this hour.
It used to be, you could make your best guess at an acceptable free agent contract and then tack on an extra year at around the same AAV. Boom. There’s your contract. This year, the trend seems to be take your best guess, cut the dollar amount in half and slice a year off the deal. That’s not a market correction as much as an opening salvo in the coming labor war. Since the ink is barely dry on the current CBA, some of this winter’s free agents will be on the market once again, before the next CBA is negotiated. They say the top players will get their money, and there can certainly be a big contact here or there, but as time rolls on, as desperation sinks in, there will be plenty of players who accept what we could term as below market contracts.
Where does this leave a team like the Royals? Sadly, with a looming rebuild and the desire for some fiscal austerity, they will – and probably should – remain on the sidelines. It will be frustrating to watch as clubs swoop for bargains in the coming days (and probably weeks) but the smart move for the Royals continues to be for them to move on from their free agents. Hosmer will still clear the $50 million threshold for the Royals to net a draft pick between the first and second rounds. It makes sense for the Royals to move on from him. While Moustakas felt like a lock to do the same back in November, in February, that’s seeming less likely. That means bringing back the third baseman would represent less of a setback to a rebuilding process. The contract wouldn’t be as long and the draft pick was going to be lower anyway.
This shouldn’t count as a ringing endorsement. It’s more like a, “My god, have you looked at the depth chart?” kind of statement. No signing Moustakas doesn’t bump the needle from also ran to contender. It won’t even nudge them to .500. But someone has to play and the Royals have the money to spend.
When looking at the rebuild through a prism of doing less harm, Moustakas represents that kind of bet.