Why baseball’s free-agency shift could benefit Blue Jays’ future

MLB insider Ben Nicholson-Smith joins Jeff Blair in studio to discuss the list of available free agent starters and relievers, and what the Blue Jays have to add in order to field a competitive team in 2019.

There was no hometown or homeland discount given out when Russell Martin signed the free-agent contract that started it all for the Toronto Blue Jays — and there is a significance to that.

It doesn’t diminish Martin’s considerable contributions to the organization during his four seasons here, but let’s be clear: People around the team then will tell you that had Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopoulos not been willing to guarantee a fifth year, Martin wouldn’t have come to Toronto. Even for somebody born in the city and raised in Montreal, there was a premium attached to coming north, just as there was for the likes of B.J. Ryan and A.J. Burnett. The latter’s signing happened only because of the freedom afforded by an opt-out after three years, a demand not asked of every other serious suitor.

Through the first four years of his deal with the Blue Jays, Martin was good or decent value. Fangraphs makes him an 8 WAR player in that time, during which the first $62 million of his $80 million were paid out, and since dollars per WAR in that time has been pegged at about $9 million, it’s not the worst contract in team history. Plus, unlike Troy Tulowitzki, Martin didn’t rage against the night — he willingly played infield positions in 2018, knowing that if he wanted to chase a ring and finish his career with a few more one-year deals, adaptability would increase his attractiveness.

Each week, Jeff Blair and Stephen Brunt tackle the most impactful stories in the world of sports and their intersection with popular culture. Come for the sports; stay for the storytelling and cigars.

Martin’s deal is an interesting touchstone at this particular time, because a lot of us really wonder where in hell free agency is going. Through Saturday, there had been 66 Major League contracts signed by free agents, 57 of which were less than three years and almost half of which (31) were one-year contracts. And woe to position players, of which only two (third baseman Eduardo Escobar and right-fielder Andrew McCutcheon) have signed deals of more than two seasons.

True, Manny Machado and Bryce Harper’s deals have yet to be forged and A.J. Pollock could snag three years but, man, more than half the consensus top 20 free agents have been signed and the only takeaway is that the cold winds that have blown through free agency in this new CBA are getting colder, especially for old players. It’s a different world for pitchers: the lengthiest contract so far is Patrick Corbin’s six-year deal with the Washington Nationals and relievers are doing OK (five of them have signed three-year contracts) and the likes of Dallas Kuechel, Craig Kimbrel and Adam Ottavino are still out there.

No wonder the Philadelphia Phillies’ Jake Arrieta took to Twitter this weekend

For many of us with memories of baseball’s labour battles, seeing the average baseball salary decrease for the first time since 2004 while watching baseball’s revenue jump over the $10-billion mark this past season without the influx of money from legalized gambling partnerships that is on the horizon… well, it scares us to do the ‘two plus two equals strike,’ thing. Relations between the commissioner’s office and the players association were already become increasingly strained over issues such as pace of play. But if this market continues to tighten…

Think about this: The guess here is there will always be a premium to getting a free agent to come to Toronto. But what if that premium is no longer a fifth year but a third year? What if this market shift allows the Blue Jays of 2020 to build on a young base without needing to shell out five-year deals, or at least save those multi-year deals for pitching? And that’s before factoring in some of the creative opt-outs that agents such as Scott Boras have been forced into pushing.

Look, the old labour warrior in me hates where this is going, but damned if it might not work out to the Blue Jays’ benefit. Unless, of course, a labour stoppage kicks in just in time for, say, 2022 and robs us of a full season with Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Bo Bichette in full flight.

NOW TWEET THIS

In which we join Tom Brady in calling out the haters … ask: Whatever happened to Leafs Nation? … remind ourselves once again why De Gea is De Best … and wonder about a world without Youppi!

• Be interesting to see what the Raptors face Wednesday in Boston: Kyrie Irving called out his team and was visibly upset at the final play call Saturday in a loss to the Magic after teammates Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris got into it during a timeout on Thursday #drama

• I love watching the Pats extinguish everybody’s hot takes: They go 4-for-5 in the red zone in their final game just to finish 15th in the NFL, but are 5-for-5 Sunday, including a 14-play, seven minute, 11-second drive to start the game that is the longest of the Bill Belichick era #haters

• Morgan Reilly of the Leafs loses that ‘Final Men In’ vote to … a guy from the Buffalo Sabres? Really, Leafs Nation? The Sabres? #spoiled.

• Kawhi Leonard, on the other hand, will make it five years in a row in which a Raptors player is voted in as a starter in the NBA’s All-Star Game. Leonard is threatening Vince Carter’s 2001 club record of 23 games with 20 or more points. He has 19 #MVP

• The number is ‘11’ … the number of second-half saves made by Manchester United’s David De Gea in Sunday’s 1-0 win over Spurs, more than any keeper has made in an entire Premier League game this season #stopper

• Prior to this season, the last NHL team with three 50-point players through 45 games were the 2007-08 Senators (Daniel Alfredsson, Jason Spezza and Dany Heatley). Three teams have done so this season, with the Lightning (Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Nikita Kucherov) joining the Flames and Avalanche on Saturday #offensive

• Rams Todd Gurley and C.J. Anderson became the first pair of teammate running backs to break 100 yards in the same playoff game since Terrell Davis and Derek Loville in a 1997 wild-card game #rammed

• It was a nice touch by the Habs inviting Mr. Met to the Bell Centre on Saturday for Youppi!’s 40th birthday, since Mr. Met is a horribly underrated mascot. And, at this time, it seems apropos to remember what could have been had Souki caught on as the Expos mascot.

THE ENDGAME

Seems as if this could be a telling week when it comes to Manny Machado and Bryce Harper’s future. There are contrasting reports as to whether the White Sox have formally offered Machado a seven- or eight-year deal, while the Phillies met with Bryce Harper this weekend in Las Vegas and apparently came away without making a formal offer — a move that has led to suggestions that the Phillies’ aim was to actually put pressure on Machado.

Complicating matters was the suggestion that a third ‘mystery’ team had actually entered the market for Machado, ostensibly replacing the New York Yankees. Sounds like Machado’s agent, Dan Lozano, is borrowing from the playbook of Harper’s agent, Scott Boras, whose trademark conjuring up of a ‘mystery’ team for his clients was a staple of his winter meetings shtick — and one that was, surprisingly, lacking at this years meetings.

What seems obvious is that this free-agent market is revolving around Machado more than Harper. A couple of swings for the fence? Machado signs with the White Sox; Harper returns to the Nationals on a complicated deal including about half a dozen opt-in or opt-out clauses.

Jeff Blair hosts The Jeff Blair Show from 9 a.m.-Noon ET on Sportsnet 590 The Fan

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