Bryce Harper has been seen as a once-in-a-generation talent since joining the Washington Nationals as a teenage phenom in 2012. So it was not unusual to think the slugger, like so many baseball superstars before him, was destined for a stratospheric deal when he reached free agency.
In baseball, which, depending on the list cited, has eight or nine of the 10 most lucrative player contracts in sports, teams suddenly are balking at signing those long-term, break-the-bank contracts. That shift over the last two offseasons has some agents, analysts and players raising questions of collusion among Major League Baseball owners.
“Two of the best players in the game, and they have very little interest in them, from just what I hear. It’s not good,” Kris Bryant, a Chicago Cub and friend of Harper‘s, told reporters at the Cubs‘ winter convention. “It’s something that will have to change. I know a lot of the other players are pretty upset about it.”
It’s not just Harper and Machado. Five-time All-Star outfielder Adam Jones, former Cy Young winner Dallas Keuchel and seven-time All-Star closer Craig Kimbrel were all still on the market as of Sunday.
MLB saw a league record $10.3 billion in revenues in 2018, but many teams are not spending as much as before on their players. Forbes reported that 54.2 percent of the league’s revenues went to player salaries last year, the second-lowest mark of the decade.
It’s a belt-tightening trend that players, especially, aren’t happy about.
“I understand it can be difficult to empathize with athletes who make millions to play a kids game but this is troubling and something thing to keep an eye out for in any industry,” Nationals closer Sean Doolittle wrote on Twitter in January. “The money from these record revenues aren’t being spent on paying players or minor leaguers and it costs the fans more to go to games (ticket prices, parking, concessions) than ever before.”
A few clubs have spent big this offseason — the Nationals lead the league at $189 million paid to free agents. But they are one of just seven teams to have spent even $50 million this winter.
MLB insiders for USA Today, ESPN and The Athletic have helped the public cobble together the list of Harper’s suitors. The outfielder, once seen as a top candidate to become baseball’s first $400 million man, has met with the San Diego Padres and San Francisco Giants in recent weeks. The Philadelphia Phillies were long rumored to be the favorites to land Harper, and the Chicago White Sox were serious about pursuing him as well.
A return to the District remains on the table. The Nationals offered Harper a 10-year, $300 million contract at the end of the 2018 season. Harper’s camp supposedly turned it down, but no other contract offer details in the Harper negotiations have become public yet.
For all the criticism coming from players and their supporters, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred said it takes two to make a deal.
“What’s going on is that the clubs that are involved and the representatives of the individual players haven’t been able to reach an agreement,” Manfred told ESPN. “It takes two parties to make an agreement.”
Last offseason, Manfred was even more pointed in his defense of management — suggesting to the New York Times that it was agents, not owners, slowing down the process.
“Drawing lines in the sand based on a perception that your market value is something different than what the market is telling you your value is, that doesn’t make a lot of sense,” Manfred said. “It is a fact that markets dictate value. Values are not dictated by big, thick, three-ring binders and rhetoric about who’s better than whom. They’re dictated by markets. That’s the system we negotiated.”
Teams, too, have seemingly taken a different approach in building their rosters in recent years. After the Chicago Cubs and Houston Astros won the World Series by tearing down their rosters and building them back up, other squads have tried to replicate the model. In 2018, eight teams finished with at least 95 losses — the most in MLB history, according to the New York Times.
Around MLB, there are at least five teams in the midst of a complete teardown — Detroit, Kansas City, Miami, Texas and Baltimore.
New Orioles general manager Mike Elias told reporters in November he planned to build an “elite talent pipeline” through the draft.
“This is a process, and it’s a process that doesn’t have shortcuts,” said Elias, who was hired from Houston.
But while some teams are content with rebuilding, that doesn’t explain why some teams like the Cubs or the Yankees aren’t more heavily involved in adding marquee free agents this offseason. Both playoff contenders were seen as favorites for Harper and Machado last year.
Experts have suggested the lack of activity in free agency will lead to a tense labor negotiation when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in December 2021. MLB players have not gone on strike since 1994, but will they if revenues continue to rise without a concurrent increase in player salaries?
There are no obvious solutions to what most parties — players, agents, fans — see as a glaring problem. Boston Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski suggested at the last winter meetings that a “free agency deadline” ought to be given consideration.
But such a deadline does not exist yet, meaning Harper and some of the world’s best baseball players could have to wait even longer to find a home.
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